Ricardo Baca is a 20-year veteran journalist, keynote speaker, TEDx veteran and thought leader in modern media and drug-policy circles. He served as The Denver Post’s first-ever marijuana editor and founded news vertical The Cannabist, where he extensively covered the advent of adult-use cannabis and related issues across the country and around the world, as seen in the feature documentary Rolling Papers (Netflix).
In 2016, Ricardo launched Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency to work directly with business leaders in highly regulated industries, including cannabis, energy and traditional healthcare. Named Marketer of the Year by AdCann in 2019 and 2021, Ricardo has received numerous accolades for his trailblazing work covering drug policy, cannabis business and culture, and continues to columnize and host podcasts for a number of top publications.
We had a chance to interview Ricardo and he shares to us how he founded Grasslands and gives us more information about the Diversity-in-Marketing internship. Read more below.
Ganjly: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you founded Grasslands?
Ricardo Baca: After more than two decades in professional journalism and untold interactions with thousands of PR professionals, I had a laundry list of PR practices I wanted to rethink and rewrite—because if we’re being honest, modern PR leaves a lot to be desired, especially from the perspective of a journalist. After stints as a breaking news reporter, a pop culture writer, a TV critic, a music critic and an entertainment editor came my true calling—as the world’s first cannabis editor at The Denver Post. What a gift, reporting on the early days of legal cannabis from Ground Zero in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay—and later Morocco, California, Spain, Netherlands, Canada, Massachusetts and beyond. But again, practicing cannabis journalism introduced me to a number of cannabis publicists, many of whom didn’t comprehend the complexities of the industry or didn’t take the time to understand my beat, my readership, my media market. And so then I knew: The purpose of the next phase of my professional life was to create a different kind of cannabis marketing agency—one that was more proactive than reactive, one that was strategic at every turn, one that studied Aristotle’s singular teachings on persuasion, one that was journalism-minded. And in late-2016, I resigned from The Post and a 24-year journalism career to create Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency. Today, Grasslands is 5 years old with 26 full-time employees—and a dynamic agency culture that has been celebrated as one of the industry’s best by MG magazine, The Denver Business Journal, Vangst and others.
What is the mission of Grasslands?
Ricardo Baca: At cannabis marketing agency Grasslands, we tell stories, build brands and amplify value. As one of Green Market Report’s best cannabis PR agencies (a recognition we brought home twice), Grasslands has a proven record of creating integrated marketing campaigns that supercharge our clients’ cannabis marketing efforts—and elevate their brand’s value in front of capital raises, public market IPOs and M&A opportunities. Our primary practices are cannabis public relations, marketing, thought leadership and advertising.
Tell us more about the Diversity-in-Marketing internship, when and where will it be held and who can apply?
Ricardo Baca: As an Indigenous American, I recognize the importance of representation—especially in the modern cannabis and marketing industries. My Chief of Staff Debbie and I took advantage of the beginning of lockdown to tackle the issue of, “Why are we not seeing more people of color and people from diverse backgrounds applying for our jobs?” The answer we landed at was: If they’re not finding our job listings on LinkedIn and Indeed, it’s our responsibility—our moral imperative—to create a pathway for them to find us and join us and make our agency better and more inclusive. We knew that diverse workforces make businesses better in every way, including our bottom line, and that’s when Debbie and I developed the idea of the Grasslands Diversity-in-Marketing Internship. This 12-week paid internship runs June-August (though the dates are flexible) and pays $16 / hour and includes a $750 / month housing stipend. Our first cohort joined us in the summer of 2021, and marketing intern Erick Rivera and PR intern Andre Hascall spent three months in our Denver agency headquarters applying their skill sets in a fast-paced environment, learning from experienced veterans and getting real-world client-facing experience that elevated their capabilities and confidence in truly meaningful ways. Our second cohort of Diversity-in-Marketing interns is currently accepting applications, and it is open to any students or young professionals who self-identify as members of an historically underrepresented group in marketing, public relations and communications—spanning LGBTQ+ communities and People of Color, including but not limited to Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian applicants—who are interested in pursuing a marcom career.
“Grasslands provided me with the opportunity to learn about emerging industries and network with experienced professionals. It gave me insight into agency work life while helping me define the importance and impact of an inviting work culture. Supportive, passionate and inspiring are three words I would use to describe the Grasslands team.” —Erick Rivera, CU-Boulder Leeds School of Business Expected 2022 Graduate
“When I was applying for jobs in public relations, I was missing some of the key skills I needed to truly be effective at an agency. Through the diversity internship program, I was able to learn everything that was missing from my skill set, and improve on what I was already able to do. I doubt I’d be on the trajectory that I am on today had it not been for the opportunity I had with Grasslands. I am confident in my abilities and my career choice, and I have the internship program to thank for that.” —Andre Hascall, Humboldt State University 2020 Graduate, Current Account Coordinator at Grasslands
What inspired you to create this internship?
Ricardo Baca: This is a full-circle moment for me. In 1995, I was approaching high school graduation with the uncertainty of not knowing where I was going next—when I got word I had secured a DEI-focused internship at the Rocky Mountain News. The internship would provide me paid full-time work as a journalist, hands-on training in a large newsroom and relationships that would help me after college graduation—a big deal for a lower-middle class Indigineous kid being raised by a single mother. I didn’t know it at the time, but that internship would change my life forever.
The Rocky’s leadership recognized their responsibility to introduce people of color to careers in journalism, and after 20-plus years at newspapers, I’m still thankful for their purposeful dedication to representation. And now it’s my turn to make a difference—to give underrepresented communities the kind of transformative experience that could open new doors for them and elevate their professional potential in an industry that desperately needs their voices, their ideas, their perspectives.
What changes do you want to see in the marketing industry 5 years from now?
Ricardo Baca: The goal with our internship program is to change the face of the cannabis and marketing industries and deepen the diversity within our own agency. And so I hope DEI practices are more standard and universal in both cannabis and marketing in the next 5 years, but I also know that it will take a very real commitment from C-Suites, Boards of Directors and general leadership—and I’m not confident that most of my peers in these industries will make this the priority it should be. Business leaders have a responsibility to do better when it comes to implementing DEI-centered measures in their businesses, and I’m generally unimpressed with what I’m currently seeing. But just as my colleagues and I were inspired by others to do better, hopefully somebody reading this thinks to themselves, “You know what? We can—and we should—do better.
Thank you so much, Ricardo, for taking the time to do the interview. To know more about Ricardo, head on over to mygrasslands.com.