Ballard’s interest in cannabis was sparked during the summer of 2015, when churches were being burned across the South and a young white man walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people, all of whom were black. He says it felt like Jim Crow was back.
Ballard lives in Chicago, but half of his family is from Charleston, so his dad recruited him for a road trip to pay respects to the victims. During the 10-hour car trip, a question animated the drive: Where had his dad’s generation gone wrong?
“His response to that question was that he felt like securing the economic foundation of the African-American community was the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” Ballard says. “His belief was that as a people it wasn’t practical that they couldn’t sustain social and political advances unless those advances are built on firm economic footing.”
His dad ran into many of the barriers black and marginalized people continue to run into today. When he applied for 13 small business loans to expand his pulpwood logging company, he was rejected by every bank for every loan.
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“His hypothesis was that it had nothing to do with the merit of his business but instead with the color of his skin. Turns out he was exactly right,” Ballard says, referring to studies finding people of color are often discriminated against when seeking small business loans.
In August, Ballard and fellow entrepreneur Seun Adedeji co-hosted a free event for “unfairly targeted communities” in Chicago who wanted to learn how to navigate the new Illinois cannabis industry. Adedji owns a cannabis business in Oregon and is opening three retail stores in Massachusetts.
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For two hours, they taught the crowd, nearly all of whom were black, what they needed to know about running a cannabis business, from how to fill out the application to how to acquire and retain customers.
For Ballard, Adedeji and the night’s attendees, legal cannabis could right some of the wrongs of the past, produce the sort of intergenerational wealth for blacks that Ballard’s father envisioned, and reverse the downward spiral of disinvestment that has ravaged places like Bronzeville.
“From my opinion, I think we’re seeing a rebirth of Bronzeville and other areas on the south side of Chicago,” Ballard says. “I can see how cannabis can play a role in that rebirth.”