If anyone knows about the power of cannabis, it’s Carolina Vazquez Mitchell. The cannabis scientist and entrepreneur uses the plant’s properties to formulate products that heal and provide relief for insomnia, anxiety and pain.

“We use science to create our products,” the Mexico-born, Los Angeles-based businesswoman tells FIERCE. Under Vazquez Mitchel’s umbrella company Ciencia Labs, she founded dreamt, a cannabis sleep aid that Vice called “one of the year’s most helpful innovations,” and Luchador, a recreational THC brand with unique flavors inspired by her home country.

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“When I was working in my previous company, I wanted to make flavors inspired by Mexico, but I was told that would be too ethnic and no one would like it. So when I made my own brand, I knew I was going to go full ethnic,” she says of Luchador, which carries cannabis-infused gummies and tinctures that burst in flavors like watermelon chamoy, pineapple mango, cucumber chile lime and horchata. 

While in the lab, where Vazquez Mitchell is formulating new cannabis-brewed food products to ease anxiety and pain, she took a moment to chat with us about her career as a cannabis scientist, her company’s mission and the challenges (and benefits) of being a Latina in the industry.

How did you get involved in this work? What’s your educational background and how were you led into the cannabis industry? What’s your story?

Carolina Vasquez Mitchell

I’m a scientist. My background is in science. I studied two undergraduate degrees, one in chemistry (when I was 15 years old) and then in pharmacology. Pharmacologists focus on the discovery, development, synthesis and the function of how drugs work. So we synthesize them, we study them, we see how they react with other chemicals and we produce them. When I was 24, I moved to the United States, and I was working as a research associate at the University of Southern California. I worked there for almost three years. Then I applied for the Ph.D. program in chemistry, and I studied there for four years. However, I got very unsatisfied with the program; I felt too old to continue studying and wanted to do something else. That’s when I started focusing on something that was much more fun for me, which is food science. I started helping food startups. A lot of people at the time wanted to put cannabis in snacks, and I thought this is perfect for me. I could still use all my knowledge in pharmacology, on drugs, on the synthesis of chemicals, while doing something fun like making gummies, drinks and candies. I’m a scientist that ended up in the cannabis industry.

What core mission drives the products and brands you produce?

We have two sides of the company: to use cannabis to help with health issues, like pain, sleep and anxiety, and recreational fun. For me, my core mission is to have science back the products. When I do my research, I don’t look at blogs. I’m a scientist. I was trained as a doctor in chemistry. One of my partners in the company has a Ph.D. in chemistry. Even though I didn’t get my title, I have 20 years of research. As a pharmacologist, I have a responsibility to the community to be truthful and to give them a product that really works. If a person isn’t getting the right effect or is getting a side effect, then that’s on me. Right now, a lot of other companies are putting one milligram of CBN, a cannabinoid, in their products. Some people believe that it works for sleep. I don’t put it in my products because I know it doesn’t work as well as people believe, and I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t care if they say, “if you put CBN in your product, you are going to sell like crazy.” It’s against my principles. I won’t do it because I know it doesn’t work. In the future, when the green rush ends, I don’t want to be the person who was lying. I’m not selling snake oil. What I’m selling works. If it doesn’t sell like crazy, that’s fine. My products are safe, useful, work and I’m selling them at the right price.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a founder in this industry?

I’m a woman, I’m young, I have a strong accent and I’m an immigrant, so when I’m trying to convince people that I’m a real scientist with 20 years of experience in research, people don’t believe me. They think, a woman in cannabis? she must be a party girl or she must have gotten help from someone. There is a stereotype problem. In the past, when I’d go into dispensaries and talk about the science behind our products, I felt pushback. I always went with my husband, who is a tall white American guy, and they expected him to talk. And I was like, “no, I’m the scientist, the creator and the formulator.” I have to speak strongly and direct to impose myself and make sure people really listen to me. Similarly, it’s also hard to get investments. People prefer companies built and founded by white men.

However, I will say, some dispensaries have a lot of Latina employees, and they’re amazing and welcoming. Even when the owners are dismissive, the Latina employees are so excited about me and my products. They feel identified and inspired. They’ve been my support and cheerleaders. In fact, they make so much noise that they often force the owners to hear what I have to say. 

What do you think you, as a woman, a Latina, an immigrant and a scientist, bring to the cannabis industry?

Carolina Vasquez Mitchell

A lot. I feel very proud. When I started working for this big cannabis company in California, they weren’t following any food safety measures. They were only worried about the product passing that cannabinoid test, ensuring that the concentration was correct. The lab was not testing for microbes, foreign materials or water concentrations; they didn’t care. A lot of companies don’t care. When I started working there, I was like, “wait, we must wear gloves, hair nets and face masks.” I developed a full food safety plan. Yes, we were selling cannabis, but we were also still selling food. It’s something people are going to eat, and people die when eating contaminated foods. I’m more worried about the safety of the edible than the concentration of the cannabinoid. If you get too high, you might have a bad night of sleep. But if food isn’t safe, you can die. I’ve helped bring food safety into the cannabis industry. I’m one of the chair members of the Institute of Food Technologists, in the cannabis division. At the beginning, the institution pushed back in forming a division because it focuses solely on food safety and food development. When we went to the institute, they said they couldn’t support it because it was drugs, not food. But we showed them that even if it had cannabinoids, it’s still food, and we need to do something about it. People can die from the food, not the cannabinoid. 

I’m also bringing myth-busting. I like to bust myths. That’s why I write for mg Magazine. I see myself as someone bringing truth to the haze of the industry, someone who brings freshness and truth to something that looks whimsical. And I’m not afraid to do that. I’m fearless, and I’m not submissive. I say what is true based on research. Soy chiquita pero picosa. Because I’m a woman or Latina doesn’t mean I’m just going to say yes. I’m humble, but I won’t let anyone treat me as anything less than a scientist. I’m a scientist.

I love that! There are many Latinas who are eager to break into the cannabis industry. Do you have any advice for them?

There’s a lot of excitement about being in the cannabis industry, but not many people know what they actually want to do. My advice is to find out what you want to do in the cannabis industry: production, marketing, product development—there are many aspects. Once you know what you want to do, study and do the research. I’m not saying get a graduate degree, but read about the trends and take free courses to really learn the basics. You need to learn the fundamentals of what you want to do. Then, read books about cannabis. Don’t just follow trends. Talk with cannabis scientists. There are certifications in cannabinoid systems or medicine. Do your homework. Be prepared. Show you are good at something. Every person I’ve hired has knowledge and skills in other industries. Skills are transferable.