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Top exec Sonoma County’s CannaCraft sees cannabis industry as another entrepreneurial adventure

When Bill Silver tasted his North Bay cannabis company’s version of a THC-infused root beer float, the new, palate-pleasing beverage took him back to his roots.

CannaCraft’s president of new markets affectionately returned to his youth working at the local pharmacy his parents ran in West Haven, Connecticut. The pharmacy — complete with an old-fashioned soda fountain — represented a gathering place for locals to belly up to the counter barstool.

“(The tasting) gave me a certain sense of nostalgia. When I wasn’t skiing, I was there. This was before Starbucks. Back then, if you’re old enough to walk, you’re old enough to work,” Silver, 56, said of New England’s proverbial pilgrim work ethic.

Silver is the type of person who understands the importance of a strong work ethic. Because of that, he’s spent his career reinventing himself.

The cannabis executive started his journey attending the University of Michigan, back in the days when Bo Schembechler led “the Big Blue” football team to many winning seasons.

“I fell in love with the college atmosphere,” said Silver, who graduated in 1986. He attended the same time former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh played for the Wolverines as the quarterback.

From there, the seed of higher academics with a major in organizational psychology was planted.

“I’ve always been fascinated with learning. It felt true to me,” he said, responding to the question of what he wanted to be when he grew up. His answer was “a teacher,” but that term morphed into an unconventional role as his college life and career progressed.

Silver headed west again for graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he cultivated an additional business focus to his major. He spent his last year in college in Australia.

“I thought about that for a half second,” he joked about the prospect of going abroad to study. His adventurous nature called.

In 1990, Silver decided to stay in the college world by becoming a professor at the University of Denver.

“It was an interesting choice,” he said.

For one thing, Notre Dame offered him a similar dean post, but he turned down the prestigious opportunity for the one in Denver based on the school’s reputation and founder Bill Daniels.

The university, which later became known as Daniels College of Business after the cable television magnate, gained recognition as the first college to work with Outward Bound. The world-renowned outdoor education organization brought a curriculum to the Denver college that used outdoor adventure activities as a means to teach students teamwork, focus, decision-making and a little grit along the way.

After 18 years there, Silver met a new crossroads when a position as dean of the business school came up at Sonoma State University, a smaller campus in budget and size. But that didn’t deter Silver. He saw an ideal “entrepreneurial” opportunity in the Wine Country, where Silver helped spearhead the university’s Wine Business Institute.

“When there are two paths, you have to make a choice. I think the toughest decision to make is to leave a position you’re happy with. But my intuition told me to make a change,” he said.

After all, his wife of 27 years and “soulmate,” Adrienne, has also relished the Sonoma County lifestyle and sought another adventure.

“She’s always been supportive of me. What works for us is we each have parts of us that are unique to us, then we have each other. There’s her, me and us. It makes us strong and complete,” he said.

Sonoma County calls

In 2008, the couple made their last journey for his career to the North Bay. Along the way, the duo has raised three boys, Ari, now 15; Zachary, 18; and Benji, 21.

Silver has taught them to work for what they have and count each day as a blessing.

Above skiing, trail running and hiking, family time tops the list of favorite activities. The list gets longer as Silver moves on and delves into a newfound source of enjoyment and fulfillment.

“I have found it’s OK to leave something you love,” he said of his moves in life. “I just wanted to make a difference.”

In 2018, CannaCraft founders, Ned Fussell and Dennis Hunter, recruited him to be the CEO for their “seed-to-shelf” cannabis operation in Santa Rosa that launched in 2014.

“I took the idea to my family,” he said. Silver got the thumbs up and felt the move from the academic wine world to weed would represent an ideal ground-floor opportunity, one where the potential of growth proved massive.

Even his Sonoma State students saw something brewing with cannabis when they started asking more questions about it in class.

“It was interesting because before they might have been afraid to bring it up,” he said.

Two years before California legalized cannabis, the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce hosted an event that addressed the challenges of economic downturns. Silver, a chamber board member, was asked what industries might contribute to the future of the North Bay.

“I brought up cannabis. I’m sure they thought I was joking at the time,” he said.

Four years after the state of California legalized cannabis, the industry is reported to be worth $57 billion globally by 2025.

Today, CannaCraft markets cannabis in chocolates, gummies, flowers, beverages and topicals. The private company located on Circadian Way makes cannabis products through the efforts of more than 200 employees.

“We’ll create a batch of something, then want to share. You don’t want to hoard it,” he said. “It’s a lot like wine. There are some similarities and some differences to the industries. They both connect us to the Earth, you see the passion from the people in it.”

Being a leader in one’s respective field has shown Silver to not back down from taking chances, truly living the journey of life and caring for the people around you.

“You have to care,” he said.

A love of learning and teaching

For those who know Silver, he comes across as a good leader.

“When I first met Bill, I saw great leadership qualities he had. He was looked up to and able to inspire folks,” said Joseph Rubin, CEO of Doobie & Lighthouse, which has two dispensaries in Palm Springs and is working on another in Sonoma County.

The two men encountered each other two years ago through a CannaCraft sales representative working with Rubin’s dispensary. CannaCraft doesn’t manage retail operations and instead works with others.

“When I look at a leader like Bill, I see the feeling that you work with him and alongside him, not for him. He’s created an environment that everyone feels included,” Rubin said. “A leader and teacher hold specific qualities that take a lot of talent and care. He truly cares.”

Silver is respected by colleagues, whether he’s a subordinate or superior.

“He’s professional, courteous, respectful and is also even tempered. That’s a quality needed in a volatile industry like cannabis,” CannaCraft CEO Jim Hourigan said about Silver.

When Silver was hired as the CEO, Hourigan worked for him as the chief operating officer before Fussell and Hunter changed their roles. Now, Silver works for Hourigan.

“The tables turned a little bit, but throughout working for him, I saw a lot of people turn to Bill for advice,” Hourigan said, adding himself to the list.

The two cannabis executives have relied on each other as they’ve negotiated the minefield of issues that goes with an industry considered legal in the state and illegal by the federal government.

“There’s always a teaching component to him. When we just want to talk, we’ll do the ‘cannaloop,’” he said of a quarter-mile running route outside CannaCraft’s southwest Santa Rosa headquarters. “We don’t just sit down in front of a computer.”

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