Inside Chris Webber's Mission to Help Black Entrepreneurs

Webber opens up about his frustrations with the cannabis industry, the importance of getting minorities involved, and more.
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Chris Webber has been in the cannabis industry for four years, and now he’s hoping to help other Black and minority entrepreneurs join him.

Earlier this month, Webber, a former No. 1 pick and five-time All-Star, announced a partnership with Jason Wild and his company, JW Asset Management, to create a $100 million private equity fund for minorities seeking a career in the legal marijuana business.

“I’ve always used cannabis as an alternative to traditional medicines,” Webber told Sports Illustrated last week. “I’ve always tried to learn more, and diving down the rabbit hole, I saw how this industry treats people of color, or women, or people from poor neighborhoods. Jason and I were both frustrated with the system.”

As more states legalize cannabis around the country—and federal legalization becomes a stronger possibility—the racial disparities in the industry only grow more stark. Black people are disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses, but white people make up an overwhelming majority of owners in the weed business. Webber and Wild's fund will help underrepresented people enter the industry, which has high barriers of entry that once again disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.

In his chat with SI, Webber spoke about his frustrations with the cannabis industry, the importance of getting minorities involved and more.

Sports Illustrated: I live in California, and when you go to some of these dispensaries, it’s like walking into an Apple Store. Meanwhile, people are sitting in jail for this. I can’t even imagine the pain for them. As someone who is in the industry, when you see people taking advantage, how frustrating is it?

Chris Webber: It's very frustrating, because it really starts with laws, and those same lawmakers make those laws and bide their time, then get out and invest in an industry after they call people predators. You know, it's funny. How frustrating is it for me? Well, I'm from Detroit, and in the '80s I remember crack being introduced into the neighborhood. And I remember people like my mother and others saying this is an epidemic. we need help. These kids, these families, you know, please look at these people as humans. Now, remember the narrative from the media or from Reagan at the time? How easy it is just to say no, or look at these animals that are taking this crack. Well, what happened with opioids? We all understand opioids; we all have a heart for those people because of narratives.

Everyone is sick that's been affected by those drugs, right? No one's better or worse than the other. But you've seen how opioids affected more white people than people of color, how we write deals, how we'll make sure we repair, how we will sue pharmaceutical companies. And so for me, I wanted someone to care about my people and communities, the way we care about others. I want to have a partnership that was inclusive. It starts with the diversity of Jason and myself. We want to inspire and I believe that with his business acumen and what he's already proven, that he's been charged to prove something else. And that is, this is not a giveaway. This is not just free money. There are people in these areas that are smart, that are successful. And the only thing they need is access to capital; the only thing they need is access to know-how. So he's actually investing in these communities and giving people an opportunity to be as successful as they are. And that's what I love about it; we're investing in people, and those people are going to change their communities. And that frustration, of just watching this whole time having family members go to jail because of marijuana, seeing the disproportionate amounts of people doing that in the country. It's just really awesome to be with somebody like Jason that really believes we're gonna make change.

SI: Can you tell me about your experience in the industry? I’m sure some people recognize your name, but there have also been barriers. What’s your experience been like?

CW: I think like anything you have to earn your stripes. It's not fair for everyone; you better not cry and complain. So all of those things, and as an athlete, we have to prove we have the business acumen and the work ethic. I understand that. I've done that.

But at the same time business is relationships. I have friends who are fund managers that told me they've never seen a Black fund manager. But we know we have people that are educated that can do it, right? There's never a question of competency or skill. It’s solely a question of access. This is not even in our press release or anything, but Jason has promised me that he's gonna have a couple of kids of color, or from different backgrounds—that, of course, have earned it and gone to school, done great jobs—but, to bring them in, give them that access into this financial world. We have so many areas to address. I'm glad I can address a fairly new market like cannabis and make sure that we have a presence that we're not left behind, like we have been in every other industry that we've built but been disproportionately punished by. This to me, honestly, you know, it's—I can't believe it. I'm part of such a great opportunity to be able to do something like this because I've seen how families have been negatively impacted. And I know how families can be positively impacted by it. And so I'm really excited about this endeavor.

SI: Could you speak a little bit to the pressure you felt as an athlete to always be perfect? It seems like we’re headed toward federal legalization and the NBA isn’t even testing for marijuana now. When you played, the conversation wasn’t where it is now.

CW: I don't know if there was pressure. I think everything has to be accepted or warmed up culturally. So I just think there has to be conversations, conversations about medicine, conversations about the healing benefits of cannabis. I mean, of course, anybody's going to be demonized when the government made it that way with the cannabis bill and other things, you know, saying reefer madness or whatever. And so you have to fight stigmas; it took a while for these things to go away.

But most athletes are well educated on health and wellness and their bodies. And so I never felt the pressure. I felt what I did was nobody else's business. It was my body. And no one's going to be here when I'm old and can't get out the bed and walk around. You don't want to be in a situation to embarrass someone or family members and things like that when they couldn't understand. I just felt that, you know, one day culture is going to catch up, but until then I'm gonna do what I have to do to take care of my body and enjoy my life.

SI: Obviously this is a hugely important issue, and we still have people wrongly incarcerated for this. Do you ever have a moment where you think to yourself, wow, I’m really getting to do this?

CW: So this morning, I woke up and I asked my wife, is this really happening? Because you work so hard towards something and you always have to battle and be ready for another battle. So it's just hitting me. I've had a call from someone in prison about this congratulating me. I've had a couple of calls from well-known baseball and NBA players. A veteran sent me a picture of a bulletproof vest and said thank you for taking this bullet. Hopefully, this makes the conversation easier for those that use cannabis or THC oils or CBD or things like that for health and wellness.

SI: As I’m sure you remember in August on TNT during the protests in the bubble, you gave such an emotional speech. And I was transfixed watching it. This is all intertwined with social justice and systemic racism. When did you start feeling comfortable having such a strong stance on these issues, that are obviously hugely important but somehow still “controversial”?

CW: So I'm teaching a course at Morehouse right now in sports and activism, And that to me is something I've been working on for six, seven, eight years. I taught a class at Wake Forest on sports and activism. My mentors are John Carlos, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and others. I was raised for this by a mother who taught in the public schools in Detroit and by a father who grew up in the unforgiving South. His life was affected because of what the South would not allow him to do, And my mother being a teacher had her thoughts and so both of them together raised me for this all the time. Since I was young, since I went to a high school that cost more than both of their salaries together. This is what my parents are and what they've been in our community, and I've tried to emulate them and I've never ran away from conversations about race.

It’s such an awesome opportunity that I just better do right by it. That’s how I feel. It’s an opportunity to give people a chance to live with dignity. This isn’t a giveaway. This is access. It’s not just helping Detroit, Chicago, or L.A. It’s an awesome responsibility. And I’m going to take this as seriously as possible. This is my priority now. I’ve found it. I’m putting everything into this, and hopefully we’ll come back later and buy the Pistons. Who knows?