The Grassroots California phenomenon: A visit with founder Ryan “Ruga” Connolly
Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 10:23
Written by theglasshousetx
Wednesday, 22 May 2013 10:25
What do California, Colorado, Medical Marijuana, hats, hard work, and giving back to the community all have in common? The answer is a little company who thinks big: Grassroots California.
This is a company that literally started from a backpack and has grown into their own flagship store in downtown Denver, with their products now being carried in more than 180 stores worldwide. They have released their first exclusive clothing line, are coordinating their own 710 Cup, and have more than 46,000 Facebook fans, all in a measly four years.
It all began with this guy: Ryan a.k.a. Ruga Connolly, who started out in real estate finance and ended up as one of cannabis culture’s most unassuming heroes.
Ryan has lived in many different places throughout his life – DC, Michigan, Florida, Colorado, and California – but now calls Denver, Colorado, home. He graduated from the University of Colorado and then worked for three years in real estate finance, where he noticed an unsettling trend – people profiting from the new legalization of marijuana by leasing buildings or selling buildings for dispensaries and grow houses, but having nothing to do with marijuana itself. For Ryan, it was personal, as he was an MMJ patient himself after suffering pain from a traumatic surfing injury. How can you profit from MMJ without appreciating its benefits?
This question prompted Ryan’s vision to grow – a vision that involved spreading the word about the cannabis culture in California (where he lived at the time) through a documentary film. To help fund the film, Ryan and JP – GRC’s art director – designed a hat to sell. Ryan sold these hats out of his backpack on the Venice Beach boardwalk and to local dispensaries in the LA area. The hats sold out in two weeks.
After filming was underway, the cameraman was attacked and the camera was destroyed. Ryan was faced with a decision – buy a new camera or keep designing and selling hats. Since he had such an overwhelming response to the first hat, he chose hats.
Even though the documentary was never completed, it led to what is now an ever-expanding business that continually gives back to the community. From day one, GRC has donated back part of the proceeds of its sales to medical marijuana law reform (http://www.grassrootscalifornia.com/v1/FAQ_Index.html).
There’s really no telling how far this business will grow, with Ryan at the helm. His soft-spoken demeanor belies a sharp and no bullshit business acumen. He essentially started a successful company in the marijuana industry without selling marijuana. Nothing stops him. When he wanted to sell hats, he asked for help. No one would make him a hat. So he said, “I’ll make my own.” When he wanted to get GRC into certain events, he was turned away because of their affiliation with marijuana. So he said, “We’ll start our own.” Read more about GRC’s next endeavor, The 710 Cup, below.
When asked, “Where do you want to go?” He responds, “This is just the starting point.”
This is where all the magic happens: 2209 Larimer St, in the heart of Downtown Denver. The store opened officially to the public on 4/20/12, but there is way more to this space than a retail storefront.
This is truly a place where community blossoms. The large, lofty-feeling unit also includes living quarters for four people, GRC’s design studio, photography studio, shipping facility, inventory, and naturally, a “grilling and chilling station” out back. It is a fun place to visit, reminiscent of a co-op, but not in a granola-all-the-women-wear-skirts kind of way.
Now on to the hats. The essence of GRC can be found in their hats. All of their hats are collaborations with different artists, and tell stories through their designs, special liners, and sometimes even hidden messages. The team at GRC produced 300 new hats last year – that’s 300 NEW designs – and they are on track to produce about the same number this year.
It seems like they might run out of ideas eventually, but they keep cranking them out – colorful graphics including everything from scenes from nature, sports, every variation of the marijuana leaf imaginable, and state icons, to favorite food items like bacon and donuts.
With 7/10 being the new secondary stoner holiday (if you turn the number 710 upside down, the word OIL is spelled out. Where 4/20 is a day to celebrate weed, 7/20 is a day to celebrate oils and concentrates), GRC felt it was only fitting to throw their own party. And this is not just any party, it is a grand event spanning three days and featuring 40+ bands and 10+ glass artists. Encompassing both entertainment and education, The 710 Cup – “A place and time where the glass and music scene unwind” – will take place in Denver, Colorado this summer from July 12-14, 2013.
While the film about California’s cannabis scene that spawned all of this has all but been abandoned, there could be a new one in the works (or at least the idea of it is percolating in Ryan’s head). He is thinking about making a film about The 710 Cup.
“The meaning of 710 only becomes clear when it’s turned upside down,” Ryan explains. “Well, my life’s turned upside down.” Not only is he managing the tremendous growth of his business, and coordinating an epic event, he is also getting married the same week as the Cup. But this is where Ryan seems most comfortable, where he finds his meaning.
And of course, he owes all of his and GRC’s success to their loyal friends and fans.
“When you start growing and get bigger, and people start seeing your hats everywhere, there are going to be a few haters. People who think you’ve sold out or outgrown the culture we’re representing. That’s not the case. I just wish everyone could come in to our shop and see what we’re all about. We’re still getting paid very minimal, we work hard, we live and work together in community. We are very thankful for all our true fans and friends who know who we are. We couldn’t have done any of this without them.”
Grassroots California hats are available for purchase at The Glass House TX.