Cannabis is seen growing in Leafline Labs headquarters, in Cottage Grove, Minn., April 18, 2019. Entrepreneur Seke Ballard sees legalization of marijuana as a way for people of color to get ahead after years of being harmed by marijuana laws. Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch
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Seke Ballard is the founder of Good Tree Capital, a firm that lends money to small cannabis businesses. 

Ballard’s interest in cannabis was sparked during the summer of 2015, when churches were being burned across the South and a young white man walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people, all of whom were black. He says it felt like Jim Crow was back. 

Ballard lives in Chicago, but half of his family is from Charleston, so his dad recruited him for a road trip to pay respects to the victims. During the 10-hour car trip, a question animated the drive: Where had his dad’s generation gone wrong? 

Seke Ballard is a Harvard-educated businessman and founder of Good Tree Capital, a company that lends money to small cannabis businesses. He believes cannabis can produce intergenerational wealth for black families and those who have been harmed by past cannabis laws. Illinois recently legalized recreational cannabis and has created advantages for places like Bronzeville and its residents who have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis law enforcement and poverty. Ballard was photographed outside his apartment in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood on Aug. 9, 2019. Parker Schorr / Wisconsin Watch

“His response to that question was that he felt like securing the economic foundation of the African-American community was the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” Ballard says. “His belief was that as a people it wasn’t practical that they couldn’t sustain social and political advances unless those advances are built on firm economic footing.” 

His dad ran into many of the barriers black and marginalized people continue to run into today. When he applied for 13 small business loans to expand his pulpwood logging company, he was rejected by every bank for every loan. 

The Cannabis Question is a series exploring questions about proposals to legalize marijuana in Wisconsin.

“His hypothesis was that it had nothing to do with the merit of his business but instead with the color of his skin. Turns out he was exactly right,” Ballard says, referring to studies finding people of color  are often discriminated against when seeking small business loans. 

In August, Ballard and fellow entrepreneur  Seun Adedeji co-hosted a free event for “unfairly targeted communities” in Chicago who wanted to learn how to navigate the new Illinois cannabis industry. Adedji owns a cannabis business in Oregon and is opening three retail stores in Massachusetts.

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For two hours, they taught the crowd, nearly all of whom were black, what they needed to know about running a cannabis business, from how to fill out the application to how to acquire and retain customers. 

For Ballard, Adedeji and the night’s attendees, legal cannabis could right some of the wrongs of the past, produce the sort of intergenerational wealth for blacks that Ballard’s father envisioned, and reverse the downward spiral of disinvestment that has ravaged places like Bronzeville. 

“From my opinion, I think we’re seeing a rebirth of Bronzeville and other areas on the south side of Chicago,” Ballard says. “I can see how cannabis can play a role in that rebirth.”  

This story was produced as part of an investigative reporting class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication under the direction of Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Watch’s managing editor and funded in part by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at UW-Madison. The nonprofit WisconsinWatch ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison journalism school. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Parker Schorr is a public affairs reporting fellow for the Cap Times newspaper in Madison, Wis. As part of the fellowship, Schorr is embedded in the Wisconsin Watch newsroom focusing on in-depth stories of statewide interest. Schorr joined the Center in May 2019 as an investigative reporting intern. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, holding degrees in journalism and sociology. He has interned for University Communications and worked as an editor at The Badger Herald, one of UW-Madison’s student newspapers.