May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, and throughout the month, we have been honoring it through celebrations of love, respect, and appreciation. We know this has been a difficult year for the AAPI community, and we send the utmost support and strength to anyone affected by injustice and racism.
In recognition of the contributions and influence of AAPI people, Toast CEO and co-founder, Punit Seth shares his background regarding his family's journey to the United States, his passion for the cannabis industry, and dedication to eliminating racism and improving equity in our world.
Tell us your background. What made you want to get into the cannabis industry?
I grew up in Charleston, SC and come from a multi-generational family of small business owners. My father left a large family behind in India and immigrated to this country in the 1970s by getting into a Master's degree program at HBCU Tuskegee University to make a better life for himself and ultimately start a family. I often reflect on his courage to come to the United States during those times in the Deep South and what challenges he must have faced to make the journey. Having found my mom years later, they started their own small business and decided to reside in Charleston, SC to raise my sister and I.
To understand my background, it's important to first celebrate the journey of my parents' coming to the United States in an uncertain time. This is the story of millions of immigrants -- many of whom are Asian -- that also have gone through great hardships to seek out their dreams in the United States. I believe that the end of cannabis prohibition is a once in a generation opportunity to take the decades of racial injustice in our industry and change it to not only build a more equitable industry, but also leverage it as a leading example to drive towards a more equitable America.
In my story, HBCU Tuskegee University gave my father a chance, which is all he needed, to succeed in building a better life for his family. I believe cannabis, if regulated correctly, can provide the same kind of fighting chance to many disadvantaged people of color in the country to both prosper financially, but also benefit from the plant through its use.
However, this broader mission isn't how my move into cannabis started out. My career before Toast was what I refer to as a "typical corporate career". I worked in management consulting and finance where I helped organizations grow and transform their businesses. With the support of my family, I decided to leave the safety net of my career and take the plunge into the cannabis industry, at first, simply because of the enormous business opportunity. I had also assembled a team of people I respected and felt were smarter than me and was excited to spend 24/7 with them in figuring out this industry. While that was enough to get me interested, I would have lost interest years ago if that's all it was about. What has kept me excited to wake up every morning is seeing first hand the positive impact of the plant on people's quality of life, and after learning about our troubled past as an industry, having an opportunity and voice to shape our industry towards equity for all.
How does your family feel about the cannabis industry?
I am blessed to have a very supportive family that would support any dream I set out to seek. Despite my family having conservative values, the view on cannabis is very different from opiates, alcohol, or hard drugs. India is known for plant-based medicine for thousands of years and cannabis was only made illegal due to the United States push back with the United Nations which were rooted in systemic racism. Cannabis originates from India and there is a general appreciation for the healing properties of the plant. I know many have had challenges in talking to family about entering this industry; however, I was fortunate to not have any issues at all and have a great support network.
What sets Toast apart from all of the other cannabis and hemp brands popping up?
Our people. They follow our values which translates into a relentless focus on providing consumers with the highest quality product, formulations, and shared experiences that enable our consumers to celebrate the comprehensive benefits of the plant. We also work with small businesses and farmers across the country who, in many cases, are multi-generational families, to bring the highest quality craft products to our consumers.
The cannabis industry is rapidly changing every day. What has been one of the biggest challenges of leading a cannabis company in this climate?
In the hemp industry we lack regulations which unfortunately leads to bad actors who sell "snake oil" and also create significant market confusion for the consumer. At Toast, we focus on educating our consumers and providing complete transparency in our process so that consumers can feel comfortable enjoying our products and know that we're always available to answer any of their questions.
What do you think will be happening in the cannabis industry and with Toast 5 years from now?
Cannabis will be federally legal and there will be a regulatory framework in place that eliminates the bad actors and allows consumers to develop trust with their favorite brands for their wellness and social needs. Toast has been a leader since the beginning working with regulators in key markets and also self-regulating at the highest standards of quality assurance and transparency to set the bar of where all companies in the industry should be operating at. We will continue to lead in product innovation and quality, and be a source of information for consumers seeking to understand how to integrate this versatile plant into their lifestyle.
We have seen racism on the rise, and brought into the public eye increasingly in the past year -- first by BLM and now in reference to anti-Asian crimes. How does Toast work within the cannabis industry and otherwise to educate and fight against this type of bias?
The racism has existed far beyond the past year and is the primary reason for the prohibition regarding cannabis and hemp. Since its inception, Toast has been dedicated to providing access to the cannabis plant to all, and holds this as one of its core values. We've also been focused on developing an equitable workforce and were one of the first organizations to announce not holding prior non-violent cannabis convictions against people applying for a role at Toast. It has been important to us to not just do the bare minimum in ensuring equitable treatment; given that people of color are systemically disadvantaged in our industry, we've taken the stance to proactively push for more diversity and back it up with our dollars towards hiring. Additionally, we only work with partners that share our values in the mindset that diversity is not only moral, but it is the only way to win in business. That said, we can always do more and invite our consumers to reach out to continue the dialogue and work together on solving the systemic problem.
What's your favorite way to celebrate with Toast?
My favorite way to celebrate is to have a backyard barbecue with friends and family, and split a pack of Toast Slices amongst the group.
Visit StopAAPIHate.org and AsianPacificHeritage.gov to learn what you can do to help support the AAPI community.