When entrepreneur Rebekah Hall is asked about her line of work, she's become used to a few raised eyebrows.
“People don’t expect me to be talking about cannabis. I’m a middle-class white woman,” says Hall, founder of drinks business, Botanic Lab, whose soft drinks are infused with CBD, the non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant.
Interest in CBD, also known as also known as cannabidiol, is exploding, with hundreds of products flooding the market in the past year as the compound is shown to alleviate health problems from anxiety to chronic pain.
Hall, 38, has her sights set on riding the ups and downs of the cannabis market to become the first person in the UK to make a million from CBD. She hopes her CBD tea will become an alternative to a glass of wine after work. Her products are already stocked in Harrods, Waitrose and Ocado, and she next has her sights set on Marks and Spencer.
“I totally want to be the queen of cannabis”, she says. “Someone’s got to be it.”
We meet in her converted warehouse office in Shoreditch, east London, Hall wearing a black Topshop dress with huge puffy sleeves. We sit by the windows and take in a fantastic view of the City. Hall, who grew up in Somerset with an IT worker father and a mum working in sustainability, spent a decade there after university, working as an accountant and investment banker, before growing restless.
“I had an itch: I looked at my bosses and I didn’t want to end up in the glass office doing that job for the rest of my life," she says. “In the end I turned 30 and thought: ‘Unless I give it up and start from scratch I’ll never do it’. You get into an income trap, it’s too good, it’s too risky, there’s too much to lose.”
After running through a couple of ideas, Hall, who had trained as a yoga instructor, decided to quit and open a health drinks business, sensing that the UK market for healthy drinks was far less developed than that in the US.
Botanic Lab came into being in January 2014, with the aim of making “drinks that do something”, using ingredients like ginseng for immune system support and turmeric to fight inflammation. Hall says she was always keen to develop a CBD product, but was waiting for the public to be “ready to accept it”.
The turning point came last summer with the case of Billy Caldwell, the 12-year-old boy with a severe form of epilepsy that can be treated with medical cannabis. His plight caused public perceptions of the drug to change drastically, leading then Home Secretary Sajid Javid to issue a licence allowing doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis oil in the UK. “We brought out our product within four months of that happening”, she says.
CBD helped the company grow: today it employs 10 people, and is expected to pull in £3.5 million of revenue this year. There is still much more room to grow, including for Hall’s salary which is still far below what it was in banking. She says one casualty of the business is her Net a Porter shopping habit.
Their main product, Dutch Courage, contains 5mg of CBD per 250ml. Hall describes it as a “social lubricant” like alcohol: a way to shrug off nerves without the hangover. “It might be before a big meeting when you’re feeling nervous, it might be the end of work when you want to wind down, it might be a drink with friends when you’re chilling out”, she says. Hall herself enjoys it regularly: “I take it to manage my anxiety on a daily basis”, she says.
Dutch Courage is just one of a dizzying range of CBD products launching in recent months, from hummus to hand cream; the think tank the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis estimates it will be a £1 billion industry in the UK by 2025. Even Coca-Cola has announced it is developing a CBD-infused beverage.
Hall calls it “cannabis 2.0”: the drug is shedding its image as a source of teenage rebellion and to become a premium wellness product with mass appeal.
Although she originally imagined Botanic Lab’s customers would be health-conscious young professionals, they are also receiving interest from people in middle-age and approaching retirement, using it to help with a variety of ailments.
“One thing that’s interesting is the amount of CBD sold to golf clubs”, says Hall. “They’re often slightly older, with joint problems and they need a good swing”.
Hall sees this mainstream acceptance of CBD as the first step on the road to full legalisation, which she thinks will happen in “five to eight years”. She thinks this will be a great thing for the economy, but also for the many patients who could benefit from using cannabis. “From a therapeutic perspective there are people who rely on these products, who need to know that they’re getting good consistent quality, and that they can get their hands on it.”
Hall says she will expand her cannabis business as regulation becomes more accommodative, and would release a drink containing THC, the compound in cannabis that gets you high. “Whatever your views about legalisation, we’re fully committed to cannabis as a plant, to its efficacy and its history, and THC is all part of that.”
But until full legalisation happens in the UK, if indeed it ever does, the murky legal status of cannabis makes the industry something of a Wild West. The compliance teams in big brands are wary of touching it, says Hall. “Big retailers have a huge reputation to protect”, she says. “And their lawyers have no idea what they’re talking about.”
There are two schools of thinking about the legality of her own product: “If you read the letter of the [European Commission’s] Novel Food directive, our product is legal, if you interpret it it’s not.” The ongoing confusion makes this at times a risky business: Botanic Lab’s website was shut down for three months by the American company who handles their online payments, after they thought she was running an illegal company. “We’re creating a product where you don’t know if you’re going to be able to sell it tomorrow. My shareholders have had to be pretty supportive and have big balls.”
Nervousness among big companies leaves a cottage industry of small producers left to pick up customer demand. This is made possible by the fact that CBD is considered a “novel food” by the government, so its regulatory oversight is not as tight as if it were sold as a medicine. “There are a lot of products that don’t have in them what they say they do”, says Hall.
This adds to the stress that Hall is already under as an entrepreneur. She croaks her way through our interview because of her “Ibiza flu”, caught from a break on the island with a friend during which she worked every day from 9 till 6. It was the closest thing she’s had to a holiday in the five years since she opening Botanic Lab. As you might imagine, she’s rather steely: one of her team tells me she’s “a horror” with negotiations and always gets what she wants.
But however stressful life is, you would have to prize the business from her dead hands. She’s tired of women building a business, only to delegate the “numbers” to a man, and focus just on the creative side. “If you don’t have your head round the numbers, it’s not your business”, she says.
She has a problem with other female stereotypes, too. “The rhetoric towards women that you can have it all is bulls***. I think it’s one of the biggest poisons that is holding women back.” She says she chose running the business over focusing on her private life. “I am single, childless and proud”, she says. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing had I had children in my 30s.”
She is hoping to inspire other women to be honest about what they want. "For women who are entrepreneurs, when they're asked 'What's your goal?' they say, 'I want to change the world and make people's lives better'.
"Those are all very worthy goals, but my primary goal is to make money. And I'm not ashamed of it."
Women Mean Business Live, November 5 2019, will bring together over 500 business leaders and entrepreneurs for a day of action, debate and networking to overcome the barriers that all too often prevent female-led businesses and professionals within the workplace from reaching their full potential. Speakers will include media entrepreneur Tina Brown, Samantha Cameron, founder of Cefinn, Marta Krupinska, head of start-ups Google among many more. For more details and how to get a ticket please click here.