This story is part of a series of profiles, The CannaInfluencers: The people shaping the cannabis industry in the Garden State. Written by NJ Cannabis Insider reporters, the profiles will publish the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, when New Jersey voters will decide whether to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis.
Tara Sargente is a woman of many passions but there’s a singular thread that weaves itself throughout her interests — cannabis.
“I’m always trying to save the world with cannabis,” said Sargente, 41, of South River.
Sargente, who is better known in the cannabis space as Tara Misu, considers herself first and foremost a businesswoman. In 2010, she founded Blazin’ Bakery — with the aim of creating a simple mix anyone could use to make their own edibles at home — but she also hosts a podcast, serves as the executive director of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, and launched a Cannabis 101 course at Atlantic County Community College.
The zygote for Blazin’ Bakery began in 2009 when her boyfriend at the time was diagnosis with pancreatitis, barring him from consuming alcohol.
“Since we were in our 20s, we were still looking for an alternative method to have fun with so I made some pot brownies one night, and they turned out really well,” she said. ” And then my friends asked, and his friends asked, and their friends’ friends, and I said, ‘I don’t want to be an illegal pot brownie dealer.’ But I did see a hole in the market and that there was a desire for people to make edibles and not really anyone at the time doing it.”
Sargente took about a year refining the product before unveiling it at Seattle Hempfest, where it was named best new product, but the real breakthrough was still a few years away. In 2013, she said, Blazin’ Bakery caught the attention of the retailer, Spencer Gifts, whose representatives approached her at a trade show in Atlantic City.
“By 2013, they came up to me and they said, ‘We know we know who you are,’ when I started to give them my pitch,” Sargente said. “And they said, we know who you are and we want the product. So that was pretty amazing because then it was in over 700 stores.”
Sargente, who likes to act in her spare time, said she played it cool in person but let loose after the convention.
“I was very cool and composed when they told me and when the convention was over, I literally was jumping up and down and running around the casino,” she said. “Like high-fiving people, it was ridiculous. I was so excited because it just felt like such a tipping point for my business.”
And it was. Because she didn’t stop with one product, she followed up the original mix with a three-minute microwave version that was a hit at Boston Hempfest in 2014, as well as more products through her Blazin’ brand online including pet treats.
“That also helped get me more involved with the medical community because then it became an easy solution to edibles in states without a medical program,” Sargente said. “That’s actually where my products did better — in states that were more prohibited — because it all comes down to access. If we’re not giving people access, it’s not like they just don’t use cannabis. They just have to jump through more hoops to get it.”
It was experiences such as this which led her to Assemblyman Joseph Danielsen’s listening sessions in 2018, where critics and proponents of legalization came out to express their voices. Sargente first approached the legislator there but the two would end up collaborating to develop language for the state’s micro-licensing program, with the aim of allowing smaller operators to get their foot in the door despite not having access to millions in capital.
“That was really the turning point for me where I said, ‘Wow, there’s good politicians out there,” Sargente said.
Much like the Energizer bunny, Sargente kept the momentum rolling and began serving as a strategic advisor to the NJCBA. Despite her success, she believes the hurdles for many women and minorities who want to participate in the cannabis industry remain quite high.
Funding, in particular, is a challenge for many in the cannabis space, but it’s even more of an issue for women, Sargente said. Lenders, she said, are more likely to fund women as long as they “stay in their lane.”
“What that means is if I were to open a business in flowers, lingerie, makeup, wedding, baby, I, women tend to get funded more in that,” she said. “But if I try to do something where cannabis is seen as very much a male dominated industry, and certainly when I started it was much more of a boys club.”
Sargente said 98% of all venture capital in cannabis goes to men, leaving women with about 2% of the pie.
“That’s something that really needs to change because now, if you’re a man, you have a 98% chance of getting your business funded,” she said. “Now, you’d probably say if you have mixed teams you have a 50/50 chance of funding, right? No, a mixed team — one male, one female — has a 20% chance of getting their business funded. So as a male, if I want to add a woman to my team, I just took my odds down from 98% to 20%. That’s not very good. So women are actually a liability in this industry, if you want to get your business funded and that’s not okay.”
Sargente said she believes part of the problem is that 90% of investors are male and when people think of what an entrepreneur looks like — it’s usually a white male like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Tesla CEO Elon Musk or Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“When people look at the cannabis industry, are they seeing themselves or are they seeing what society tells us is an entrepreneur?” she said. “These are the people who build empires. They’re not seeing someone who looks like me or a Black or Latino man, or someone who’s LGBTQ, or a minority woman. White male is kind of the industry standard for empire building and that’s something we really need to change too.”
With folks like Sargente in the New Jersey cannabis space leading the charge, it seems likely that those perceptions are already on their way to changing.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.