The persona of a modern-day CEO or creative director tends to be far different from the image that mavens like Draper Daniels set forth in their heyday. Rather than perpetuate a callous facade, successful leaders look beyond business to become community organizers with the aim of supporting the next generation. It is this same spirit that helped birth K-Swiss 50 years ago, an ethos that became the driving force behind its new "We Are The West" campaign.
The campaign, according to K-Swiss, "highlights inspiring stories of perseverance and creativity required in modern business." Partnering with Foot Locker, K-Swiss tapped a host of creators within California’s booming entrepreneurial scene to spotlight, including custom jeweler Ben Baller and social media and digital media marketing strategist Karen Civil. HYPEBEAST sat down with Benz, owner and creator of the cannabis-themed retail space Mister Green, to talk about the hurdles and the successes of running his business in Oakland and how he makes a positive impact on his community.
What does it mean to be a part of a campaign that recognizes you amongst an established class of like-minded entrepreneurs?
Obviously, we appreciate the recognition. That being said, my peers in this campaign are running at the top of their game. While we may be well-regarded in our genre, I feel we’re still putting the pieces together and we haven’t hit our stride yet. That being said, getting nominated into this type of opportunity feels very encouraging that we are headed in a good direction.
What void did Mister Green fill that Los Angeles was missing?
Creating Mister Green wasn’t about filling a void in Los Angeles. Beginning around 5 years ago, I couldn’t find a brand that was equally dedicated to marijuana as it was to a contemporary design practice, so I’ve done my best to
fill that in general.
I read that when you first conceived the brand, people you loved and trusted didn’t understand your intentions. What advice do you offer for anyone who hits that hurdle in the beginning?
It’s funny, I’d never gotten so many supportive responses from people as I did when sharing my idea with them; almost everyone I told about Mister Green before launching seemed to be down with it. But the two most important people couldn’t get behind what I was doing at the beginning. One was my mom [laughs], and the other was one of my best friends, who I won’t shout out, but is probably the most consistent and successful designer I know, so that hurt. They have both since come around, but it fully demanded me to put my intentions into question, which ultimately was a good thing.
If everyone around you is giving you positive feedback, it’s nice but not necessarily a good thing. If friends or family push back against your ideas, it’s ultimately up to you to figure out a way to address it and move beyond that challenge because once you actually get your thing going, it’s likely the same thing is going to come up. It’s obviously better to come prepared.
How have you embedded your own personal style and aesthetics into what you design and offer in store?
I create things from a pretty selfish perspective and basically ask myself, "does this thing exist in my world? What’s missing or what could be improved? Does this spark joy?" [Laughs]
Ideas usually flow quickly for me, and once the "why?" is answered, putting my personal style into things is inherent, but I’ve also set the brand on its own path and I respect the value system that has been established at this point.
Ultimately, I believe that as a business owner, wherever you are, you should be supporting your local community. In order to do that, you have to know them and be interested in working toward a common goal of improving the local community.
You’ve stated that Alex Calderwood was a mentor of yours. What life lessons and advice did he instill in you and how do you continue to tap into it today?
One of the main things I observed working with him was how open-minded he was. People were constantly pitching him ideas, trying to get his advice and sharing what they were up to. He always listened very intently and kept the discussion open. You would be surprised how many projects were born through conversations he had years prior. And yet, at the time of their revealing they felt perfectly fresh. Alex had an insane understanding of timing. I’ve tried to continually put that into practice.
What entrepreneurial endeavors are happening in L.A.’s creative community that we should pay attention to?
Thankfully, a lot of the endeavors people are undertaking are much more community and public based. We just started working with a company called Cage Free Cannabis, for example, whose sole mission is to repair the damage to people and communities caused by the war on drugs. They saw a lack of interest and initiative by cannabis companies who will profit for the same reason others are still in jail for. People often forget that entrepreneurs are motivated by more than a Series A funding round.
Some residents of neighborhoods disrupted by big businesses have complained about how large corporations are disrupting historic communities. As a small business with a communal tie, how have you managed to stay connected to the people?
We opened in a very diverse neighborhood — historically with mostly Latin and Armenian businesses in the surrounding area — as well as a large community of Scientologists (their main headquarters is a couple of blocks away). I’m neither Latin nor Armenian and I’m not a Scientologist, but the first thing I did was introduce myself to pretty much everyone I encountered and became a "regular" at their businesses. I encouraged and helped —occasionally overstepping my grounds — friends open on my block and helped advocate for the existing businesses who have faced challenges with the city, landlords, etc.
How can businesses show respect to the communities they inhabit?
Ultimately, I believe that as a business owner, wherever you are, you should be supporting your local community. In order to do that, you have to know them and be interested in working toward a common goal of improving the local community. If you’re not interested in doing that then you should probably figure out when your soul left your body.
If everyone around you is giving you positive feedback, it’s nice but not necessarily a good thing.
Down the line, what does your “grander existence" look like?
Getting to a place where the basic challenges of operating a business aren’t as daunting. Expansion would be nice, but ultimately quality over quantity is more interesting to me. Culturally the world is catching up with cannabis and marijuana as being a net-positive aspect of daily life, so if we’re able to lead by example in exacting a positive cultural development overall, that would be nice.
For more information on the campaign and products, head to K-Swiss’ website.