With almost a decade long participation in the cannabis industry, Lezli Engelking is the Founder of a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), The International Cannabis Health and Safety Organization. Founded in 2014, FOCUS is based in Arizona and works globally.
Engelking has been highly perceptive from a very young age with a consistent eagerness to learn. She grew up with compassion in her heart and aspiration to give back to society. While tenacity and perseverance were the riding force behind her progress. According to her, all her life experiences including the professional roles she held previously laid the groundwork for her current role. She shares, “My college years taught me how to effectively communicate and actively listen. Working in mental health, I learned how to effectively change the stigma of depression and mental health. Working in London, I became keenly aware of how every decision and process ultimately affects the success of a business, regardless of its size. My years in advertising and marketing taught me the invaluable lesson that every market, every consumer, every human is unique, and brings along their own set of beliefs, needs, and preconceptions. Through my work in the highly regulated and compliance-driven pharmaceutical industry, I learned the importance of systems and processes in assuring correct outcomes. I use these skills all day, every day, and truly believe they have had a huge impact on my successes in life.” Having over two decades of experience working in pharmaceuticals and non-profit sectors, her astute knowledge of the industry comes mainly from the 12 years she spent with Eli Lilly. Being at Lilly inspired her to steer her prowess and apply it to the booming cannabis industry. This is when she opened the first vertically integrated chain of cannabis licenses in Phoenix. After serving around two and a half years as Executive Director of that company, she came face to face with the need for the quality and safety standards in the cannabis trade. Like the tobacco or pharma industry, Engelking realized that the cannabis industry’s unique position today makes it vulnerable and prone to the similar complications that cost these industries setbacks in terms of consumer safety, public health, and quality standards. She asserts, “Mistakes where real people paid the price, sometimes even with their lives.” She treated this analogy as a precautionary tale to avoid repeating the same bungles. She shares, “I recognized early on that as the cannabis industry began to scale and grow, cannabis would be governed by the same types of standards that govern any other industries. This led me to sell all of my financial interest in the industry to develop standards and provide third-party accredited certification.” Engelking’s progressive and intuitive approach has been significantly influential in shaping local and international cannabis policy including coordinating and developing cannabis specific educational content for the Association of Food and Drug Officials, Department of Agriculture, and the National Environmental Health Association. In 2018, she contributed to the United Nations and World Health Organization meetings on the global rescheduling of cannabis.
“We all have a responsibility to make our world a better place. Taking action to make that happen, on every level, is what leadership is all about,” says Lezli Engelking, Founder, of FOCUS.
Although the route to FOCUSwas not straight forward. When Engelking first pitched her idea at NCIA’s 2014 business conference she found that the cannabis industry operators at that time did not have a real understanding of the difference between standards, regulations, and laws – and did not understand the value standards bring to operators in any industry. She says, “It was a key lesson for me, that forced me to take a step back to assess the industry as a whole and determine how they might best receive this information going forward. For the next two years, I spent my time educating the industry on the difference between standards, regulations, and laws and how standards ultimately benefit the industry. It has been a long trek, but here we are 6 years later, and standards and certification are the biggest buzz words in the cannabis industry today.” Yet there are a number of ongoing challenges in the company’s way. The biggest challenge continues to be the struggle that goes into sustaining their independent third-party status. This issue also presented itself for the first time during the recruitment process for their standard development committees. It was hard to find knowledgeable individuals from outside the industry who weren’t afraid to associate themselves with cannabis. “As a health and safety organization, our value is intrinsically tied to our ability to remain independent and unbiased at all times,” shares Engelking. “FOCUS never accepted investment capital and has existed for over 6 years on a shoestring budget- surviving because of the incredible people who willingly contributed their time and generous donations because they believe in the value FOCUS provides to the global cannabis industry.” Another challenge that keeps the FOCUS team at their toes is determining the product’s sanctity. Due to the gap between federal and state regulations on the subject, all businesses rely almost exclusively on laboratory testing to evaluate the safety of products. As testing is a reactive process, it devises multiple pathways for unsafe products to reach the target users and also dramatically enhances the costs as well as the time taken to reach the market, which is eventually detrimental to both patients and operators alike in this newly developing industry. Engelking asserts, “The implementation of standards is a proactive way to assure the suitability of end products. It is also the best way to assure the long term success of running a cannabis business.” Hence, FOCUS’s mission is to protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity within the cannabis industry. In the six years of their operation, they have been extremely dedicated to developing cannabis-specific ‘Good Manufacturing Practice’ standards and providing third-party internationally accredited certification to guide operators and regulators alike and ensure only safe, consistent, quality cannabis products are available within the marketplace. For their contribution to the same, they were nominated for 6 CannAwards in 2015. Also, they have been honored with the awards for Most Influential Organization in the Industry and Most Innovative Service in the Southwest.
Such future successes Engelking believes lie within one’s leadership potential which is ultimately based on the ability to learn and grow. According to her, if we willfully set aside our egos, collaborate, put in the time and effort to do the work, we all can find solutions and answers. She exclaims, “I could have never gotten where I am today if it weren’t for all of the incredible people who took the time to help me learn and grow over the years.” Therefore, for women who aspire to be on the same pedestal as Engelking, she puts out some very wise words: “You are not limited by your current skill sets. These should be considered a baseline starting point for your continued development as a leader, and a human. Many of the skills I rely on to do my job every day are things that I have learned out of necessity. If you are willing to work outside of your comfort zone and dedicate yourself to continually learning, amazing things can be achieved. Secondly, it is super important to recognize that a formal leadership role is not necessary to lead others. Leadership happens all around us, and stepping up to the plate to help and serve others is not just limited to board rooms or management positions.”
Likewise, Engelking intends to build a legacy around her contributions to making the world a better place. “FOCUS and the work that we do to protect health and safety in the cannabis industry will certainly be a part of my legacy. However, it is critically important to me that my legacy also includes who I am as a person,” says Engelking. “I want to be known for being a good friend and role model, for helping others and treating them with kindness and compassion, for building bridges and pathways to solve problems. Maya Angelou’s famous quote sums this up perfectly: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”