While a female-run, male-owned company is far from the norm in the cannabis industry, ETHOS Genetics attributes much of their success to the diversity and innovation that make it stand out from the competition, including its female-driven team. You may have heard of Ethos Genetics, and you may even be familiar with their founder and head breeder Colin Gordon, but what you may not know is that this powerhouse of a brand is run and staffed by one powerhouse of a female executive. Riley Breiner, COO of ETHOS Genetics, recently reached the 30-year milestone, and I had the chance to discuss her relationship with cannabis, her path from Denver to Sweden and back, and how she went from casually growing plants from bag seeds to being one of the highest paid female executives in cannabis, overseeing the operations of an international seed company that spans six continents.
The Early Years
While this indomitable executive may have picked up a few things from her international experiences, she’s a native Coloradan, born and raised in the South Denver/DU area who continues to call Colorado home. Colorado’s favorable attitude towards cannabis, as well as her parents’ openness about the plant, has allowed her to go from smoking the plant as a hobby in her early teens to turning the passion for the plant into a professional pursuit.
“My dad was an avid cannabis user and never shielded it from us…he didn’t want me to think what he was doing should be closeted and he believed that I should learn for myself if I wanted to partake,” Breiner explains. In spite of getting into cannabis at an early age, as a high-functioning and driven student, Breiner’s pursuits were not negatively impacted by her hobby.
When she turned 18, Breiner obtained her first medical card and has had it ever since. This allowed her to shop at dispensaries, and eventually led to her first bag seed.
“I knew nothing about growing,” Breiner recalls. “[I] put it in the dirt, put it outside, gave it water and hoped for the best.” These modest efforts would yield what she remembers to be an amazing first harvest. The result was a reddish-purple plant that “smelled amazing” and was given the name “Ron Burgundy” (the seed came from a bag of Black Beauty from a random dispensary that Breiner has not been able to source since).
While these early years of medical and recreational legalization created new opportunities for work, they also presented new hurdles to overcome, including educating her extended family on the benefits of the plant as well as its ability to provide a stable source of legal income for Breiner during college and beyond.
Paying for College with Cannabis
After she graduated high school, Breiner worked for a Fine Foods Market downtown but really felt like she was scrambling to figure out what she wanted to do. After being accused of being high on the job, Breiner was out of work and decided to begin pursuing the cannabis industry for employment. She applied for and received her first badge and scored a job at Mile High Green Cross dispensary, which was her first foot in the door.
During this time, she was also attending college, and paying for her education with the wages she earned as a bud tender, and eventually manager, at a dispensary. But her entry into the industry was met with resistance from her grandparents who were concerned about the dirty, shady stereotypes of yesteryear (and of many early dispensaries). She says that they felt as though she “Might as well be working in a head shop” but that she is happy that she was able to show them that, regardless of moral objections, it was a good job that put her through an expensive, elite school when she never had to want for anything. Her ability to work full time, maintain side jobs, and stay persistent in her professional pursuits helped to bring doubtful members of her family around, which she explains was a huge victory, and eventually earned their respect.
From Denver to Sweden
After her first job at Mile High Green Cross, Breiner became the go-to person under management, assuming Lead Budtender and manager roles quickly before being put in charge of the administrative side of the grow. She was able to quickly pick up skills, including learning a few things about growing while working with the head grower. But after about a year, she left to work as an independent contractor on a trim crew, going from grow to grow until the launch of recreational in January 2014.
Tru Cannabis, a dispensary in the area, called the trim company looking for people with bud-tending experience and her boss referred Breiner as the best candidate. After working a few days, she secured her position, one she would hold throughout her remaining time at the University of Denver until she left the country to complete her studies.
During the last semester of her undergraduate studies, Breiner fulfilled her International Studies’ program requirement by studying in Sweden for six months, finishing there and receiving her diploma upon her return stateside, though this move meant leaving the cannabis industry. Upon returning, Breiner was met with a tough decision: take her prestigious education and work her way back up from the bottom rung of the cannabis industry ladder or leave the industry she was passionate about.
“I went to Sweden for six months and finished school there and came back and collected my diploma and had to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life...I really wanted to utilize all of my years of experience in the industry… [and] all of that time and knowledge in a burgeoning industry, but I couldn’t really find any way to apply my degree or my academic knowledge in that world because it is just a really typical retail [situation]; there’s not a lot of room for creative growth in those environments,” recalls Breiner.
"When I came back from Sweden I definitely was hit with a brick wall of over saturation of applicants in the industry and everywhere I would apply to was like, ‘You know it’s really nice that you have experience but you’re going to have to start at the bottom.” And that was a really hard pill to swallow when you just graduated from a fancy school and you have five years of experience in the industry and everybody is like ‘yeah, start all over,’ ya know?"
After jumping around jobs, Breiner would find herself at the now infamous Sweet Leaf dispensary chain.
Sweet Leaf, Santa Rosa and a “Safe” Backup Plan
Breiner ended up working at Sweet Leaf for just over a year and a half. Coincidentally, in March of 2016, Colin Gordon had brokered a collaboration between Ethos and Sweet Leaf, though Breiner was not involved at the time. Her first show with ETHOS was in Santa Rosa, California in 2017 and it would require taking time off from Sweet Leaf to evaluate her life’s path.
As many in the industry know, requesting time off around 4/20 is frowned upon at best and forbidden at worst. Breiner requested her time off for the Santa Rosa event, only to be met with opposition from management and the speculation that Breiner would burn herself out at events that are unforgiving when you’re on the clock nonstop. After some back and forth during a one-on-one, Breiner eventually secured her ability to go to Santa Rosa and to return to her management position afterwards. Unlike most, it was easy for Breiner to combat the possibility of burnout through taking advantage of the opportunity to travel. Less than six months later, she made her decision to make a change, all the while believing that she could always go back to Sweet Leaf as the “safe” backup plan, but Ethos was where her passion and profession was headed.
The Beginning of ETHOS
Breiner’s experience working with Gordon and seeing him in his element, wheeling and dealing at the cannabis cups and expos shined a light on the potential that this young genetics company could have. Having met through friends and coworkers, Breiner and Gordon did not have a professional relationship until she was already working at Sweet Leaf, but she had hung out in the Ethos booth, smoking with those who came and went, and observing Gordon in his professional element, talking with customers. Breiner recalls thinking, “There’s more to this guy. He’s layered; you might think you know him because you talked to him and he's loquacious. He’s super smart and can catch your interest…but there’s more…he’s like a duck; there’s more going on under the surface.” And Breiner’s recognition of this potential gave birth to a vision for ETHOS.
“[Colin] approached me in the beginning of 2017 saying that his seed company was really taking shape and he wanted it to become a more serious business; a more structured, traditional business...He approached me with that just as a part time offer. Just to see if we worked well together, if we could align in our vision for the future of said company, and if we could start to accomplish anything."
As the company developed plans to mature and evolve, both Breiner and Gordon developed their “mission” for the company. Gordon’s was to change the ethos of cannabis, and the genetics industry in particular. Breiner’s was to bring the efficiency and structure that established, mature industries have developed and apply that to the cannabis industry to overcome age-old truisms that were less than ideal; to take a black-market industry and approach it as a legal business. Aside from popping a few bag seeds, Breiner had no background in seeds, and her introduction would be a crash course in an almost completely male driven sector of the industry.
“I really have no background knowledge of the seed world before I started with ETHOS. Like literally never crossed my mind to buy seeds, to sell seeds, to make seeds, any of that stuff. And I had grown several times since I was 18 as a totally secondhand hobby. I’d grown bag seeds from my entire adult life, and luckily, somehow, I’ve actually never popped a male. I’ve always managed to find and pop female bag seeds. Ironically, even though I had dabbled [in growing], I had no knowledge or experience of the seed industry itself. So, coming into it, I think that actually served to my benefit, because there's two things that I would say now can easily be attached to or labeled upon this industry:
• It is completely male driven.
• It is predominantly driven by men who think they have it all figured out from their angle.
"They’ve got their genetics, their methods, this that and whatever, and a lot of these guys are perfectly reasonable people who are willing to say, ‘I’ve got it figured out from my perspective,' but there’s definitely a decent percentage of them that seem to believe that this world is already set in stone and things are the way they are and that things will stay that way. And I think that that is probably the most ignorant mindset one could have about anything regarding the cannabis industry. Because as we’ve seen, you take the black market element off of the table and things really change in a pretty unpredictable way…if you look at how just the sale of flower and consumables has evolved in this country in the past several years, I think that translates over into the seed world. And when we came into it, as a new company, we did so with that mindset.
The Early Years of ETHOS
Even those outside of the company began to notice an immediate difference in the way that Ethos conducted business once Breiner and Gordon had teamed up. "Within the first six months working together, we established the product line, catalog, all new packaging, and developed an events team,” recalls Breiner of their three-man operation. “We set up an events schedule and started doing shows.”
"More than anything I wanted to build something. I didn’t want to just be a cog in another person's vision,” explains Breiner of her approach to working with ETHOS. Breiner not only wanted to build something from Gordon’s vision but to expand upon it, finding personal satisfaction in her own goals for growth. “ETHOS was a little bud sprouting and needed to be nourished and loved to flourish, it needed that attention and professionalism that Colin possibly couldn’t give all by himself, there’s just not enough hours in the day."
After Breiner said goodbye to Sweet Leaf officially, she had jumped in full time with ETHOS by Summer 2017 and has never gone back to retail. Shortly after leaving the “safe” backup plan of Sweet Leaf, the dispensary chain was raided in one of the larger coordinated efforts against a licensed operation. Breiner is thankful to have found a great fit and avoided the pitfalls that many of her coworkers fell victim to. Instead, she was able to focus on using ETHOS to set a new bar for the industry.
"What was exciting to me was that I had to jump into this new aspect of the industry of seeds, and seed sales. I had no idea at all what it was really all about, what it consisted of, and what would be expected of me, but I was able to see that industry in itself is classically unorganized and classically informal and that’s perfect for me, I’ll shine like a star in that environment because I prefer traditional aspects of business, and I prefer organization and professionalism and all those things so it is really easy for me to help ETHOS stand out in that way in this world of casual [business]."
“When we came in as a new company, we did so with a fresh mindset,” recalls Breiner. "Colin told me in our first meeting when we sat down to just shoot the shit about the what if’s, that that was why he named his company ETHOS; he wants to change the ETHOS of the seed world and the cannabis industry. He wanted to make people realize that it is not set in stone. There is no rule book on this stuff…We aren’t actually reinventing the wheel. We are re-purposing the wheel and we’re restructuring it to use it in a more efficient way,” she explains.
"We took everything we had learned and said, ‘logically, this is how you might do it if it wasn’t a novelty, if it wasn’t a black-market item, if it wasn’t cannabis, you would do it this way.’ We envisioned doing the classic retail/wholesale business structure, vertical integration, etc. and we’ve stayed focused on building our company to be functional and operational in the most traditional sense. "
By treating their business and industry as you would any other and focusing solely on building a company that was operational on a traditional, functional model, ETHOS was able to take the market by storm, and by 2018, it had taken on a life of its own.
The Current State of ETHOS
“Unequivocally, I couldn’t have done this without her,” proclaims Gordon of ETHOS’ rise to prominence. “She’s one of the smartest, kindest, most loyal people I’ve even known.” ETHOS has largely operated as it does today for the past two years, the only difference being the gradual addition of team members. When Breiner took control of operations in Summer of 2017, ETHOS was working with one Denver vendor and one UK seed bank. Now, as a result of her efforts, Ethos is available through 45 vendors on six continents, a truly impressive feat, although Gordon jokingly concedes that he told Breiner that Ethos needed an Antarctic presence.
The company’s most measurable growth under Breiner’s direction has been its expansion of its wholesale distribution network, and the care it affords good business relations. "A lot of our vendors tell me, ‘You know we deal with a lot of breeders and you guys really have your stuff dialed in,’” and that’s what means the world to me, explains Breiner.
“I don’t just do all this hard work so I can feel organized and sleep well at night and brag on the phone when I get to do an interview,” she continues. "I really do it so that I can get that feedback...the fact that all of these vendors are happy to work with us because we work hard for them, that’s the point for me. That’s the whole point of hard work; the reciprocity it breeds. So, I’m pretty happy with that situation."
And her work shows. ETHOS works hard for their vendors. "Our advancement with our design and packaging and overall delivery to the end user – how they actually receive our product – has come so far from when I started...everything used to be seeds in a little silicon puck glued in a paper sleeve. Now we have fancy matchbox style packaging with tamper-proof stickers and everything is very top of the line," explains Breiner. "It’s not just about putting the pretty package on the outside, it’s about deserving a pretty package around what’s inside."
The Difference Structure Makes
While male-owned, ETHOS is an entirely female-run operation and a majority of the team are female, a distinctive difference from the majority of the cannabis industry.
"For me, personally, that’s what is refreshing about the cannabis industry. It is absolutely male dominated, but there is room for women as well…You don’t have to feel stifled; speaking up does get you respect,” encourages Breiner. “That’s hard to find, in the world, period."
Since Breiner came on board, this team has implemented all of your standard corporate practices, policies, procedures and departments, including things like payroll, benefits, an HR department, and everything in between.
"We have standard payroll operations and benefits and everything. We even joke because we have an HR department…It’s really grown to a place where we can sit back and say yes, regardless of what we are making and what industry we technically fall in, we are basically any other company in this world at this point. We go to work, we do our job, and we go home. It’s a very 9-5 operation at this point in the best possible way. And I think that’s in some ways what seems to set us apart."
"The beauty of this industry and why so many people love it and want to be in it is because it has that element of informality and casualness, and absolutely that’s why we’re here, too,” says Breiner. "But if we can do it better so easily, why not? And I think that’s the real vision of ETHOS: we want to reinvent the standard, which is particularly easy when the standard is not necessarily so low, but so informal...the standard of seeds is ‘you get what you get’ and ‘breeders are notoriously hard to work with’... ETHOS has managed to persevere through that “typical” side of things while building up a strong, reputable brand."
"Colin isn’t just your typical person and is generally an unconventional guy and it’s to our benefit in every way for the company,” explains Breiner. “His unconventional elements bring in other people who are not cut from the mold, not so cookie cutter but in the best way. We have a really awesome group of people that make up our staff."
Breiner and her events coordinator Loren are best friends but work life and friend life have been easy to keep separate. Breiner hired her because she was qualified. Jokingly, Breiner explains that ETHOS has a unique form of hiring she’s coined as “qualified nepotism.” They hire people that they have a positive relationship with and knowingly work well with but those people have to actually be qualified for the position to get hired. And while we don’t really all hang out outside of work, Breiner says that ETHOS is truly a family. “We’re close, work well together, work through it when we don’t and have no other obligations to each other that aren’t chosen.”
This structure has kept everyone happy and, as a result, they’ve had very little staffing or retention issues. Out of the 18 employees who have been hired throughout the life of the company, they’ve retained 13 and the five that left weren’t fired, they simply moved on to better opportunities. “We have a very casual 40-hour workweek," explains Breiner. “Work gets done, self-managed employees stand out, and the less you need me, the farther I’m going to push you up [to greater opportunities]."
ETHOS’ internal community and work environment has allowed it to grow organically largely due to the leadership of Breiner. “I really strive to have appropriate people in appropriate positions,” she says. And it shows. ETHOS hasn’t the hit road bumps that big growth and big groups of new faces typically do.
Making Her Mark
As Breiner looks back on her time and accomplishments with ETHOS, the two standouts are the measurable growth in overall presentation of the brand and their distribution network. Both of these improvements have had a direct impact on the ETHOS brand experience that consumers and distributors have come to know and love. Breiner believes that the quality of the brand they have cultivated is equivalent to the quality of the products themselves.
"Something else that I’ve become particularly proud of is the measurable growth in our overall presentation, because I think it really reflects how we have changed as a company…I really feel like the respect we have for our product and the pride we take in our brand allows us to truly stand out, all the way to the end user, so that they get to be proud to hold that product."
Between January 2019 and January 2020, ETHOS was doing more than a show a month, divided into two trade show teams, and their entire staff had doubled. Indo Expo 2020, held in Denver, CO was a “landmark” event for Breiner and the team. There were crowds around the booth all weekend, and it was ETHOS’ most extravagant exhibition yet.
"Our presence at Indo Expo this year was a major milestone for us. We’ve never done a booth that big. We’ve never gone that extravagant. We planned that for months… and it paid for itself ten times over because we got to present ourselves the way we view ourselves. It’s not about just being the shiny booth with the eye-catching images, it’s about actually having something to back it up and having a fanbase that wants to see us in these places. They are that much happier when it’s easier to spot us, and we stand out and we look pristine to the 9’s."
Then, COVID completely eliminated the trade show world. In spite of this ETHOS continues to prosper and Breiner believes that they can continue that growth as long as they set their sights set in the right direction, and respect feedback from vendors and customers. Keeping them happy involves a healthy give and take balance that Breiner pays particular attention to.
“It’s just really awesome to be so fulfilled in these pursuits, but know we are getting to do it for other people, because other people want it from us,” explains Breiner. "There’s a really awesome validation in that kind of self-indulgence; we are getting to do what we love every single day, but for the right reasons. We’re giving it back."
While Breiner hasn’t had a personal grow for the past few years after selling the home that she and her sister owned, she’s still a big advocate of home growing and is beginning construction of a new grow in her newly purchased home in Denver. The first strain that she grew indoors also happened to be the first ETHOS strain she’d ever grown, Memberberry. “It’s forgiving and user friendly for a new grower while being extremely commercially viable,” she explains. “If you are capable of being successful, this plant is for you. Unless you completely mess up, it’s going to be fire."
Aside from her work relationship with cannabis, she’s still an avid cannabis consumer as well. “I dabble in everything, I’m a concentrate girl primarily but blunts are my first true love,” Breiner remarks, continuing that she’s lucky to be able to function while dabbing throughout her workday. “I love live concentrates, and I’m getting more into rosin lately…moving away from harsh solvent concentrates towards solventless extracts for the health aspect of things.” While she loves both concentrates and flower, Breiner also enjoys making her own solventless dabs as well as RSO and edibles, testing out her own brownie batches often to the enjoyment of her friends.
Recognition & Advice
Incredibly modest, Breiner deserves much of the recognition for the success of ETHOS’ growth. “My goal in this business has been to maximize the opportunities provided to me by the industry as a whole,” she says. “I knew this was the industry [for me], but there was a time when I’d only seen the retail side. Now I have proven it doesn’t end there.”
Having made the leap from relatively stable retail jobs to the more entrepreneurial side of genetics and breeding, and having seen both sides of the industry (and the male-dominated hierarchy that has existed within it), Breiner’s advice to the community is simple: “Don’t assume it’s a dude; There’s a lot of women working really hard who deserve the respect of not being assumed about.”
When pressed, Breiner describes her professional role as that of an entrepreneur. This may be true, but she’s more of a leader than many entrepreneurs, and that sets her apart at ETHOS and in the industry at large. Breiner looks out for the entire team, iterating on more than one occasion that they were the ones who truly deserve the praise and recognition.
"No one would want to read about Riley or Colin if it wasn’t for everyone else that worked at ETHOS,” reminds Breiner. "If my staff doesn’t know that they’re appreciated, then I’m not doing my job. Everyone who is not named in this article is at least as important as everyone who is, if not more so, because they go unsung."
Know your worth, expose your worth.
It may sound cliché, even to Breiner, but it's her #1 piece of advice for women; know your worth, especially in a male-dominated industry. “Only you can determine your worth and that determination should be made in humbleness, but with apt consideration.”
As far as general life advice goes, Breiner adds, “If you know who you are, not only does it matter less when other people try to cloud that perception or disagree with it, it is also easier for you to impose your will upon others in a good way...if you have a set goal, you can keep people from getting in your way if you make it their goal too, because sense of urgency translates easily. 'I bring XYZ to the table and project ABC is going to get done.' If that’s the air you bring, it is remarkably contagious."
This article is dedicated to James Kilroy Breiner II, Riley’s father, who introduced her to cannabis in an open, accepting way, and who passed away while this piece was being written, and to her grandparents who have always provided a model and resource for success along with unwavering support.