Author: Tom Ndekezi
12 July 2021
Keenan Pascal is the co-founder and CEO of Token Naturals, a locally-owned cannabis manufacturing company based in Edmonton, Alberta. Founded in 2016, Token Naturals has raised millions of dollars in capital and become a national player in Canada’s cannabis market in just five short years. The Token team has also launched the offshoot brand Token Bitters, which is an internationally-available aromatic bitters manufacturer that has quickly become the largest in Alberta.
As the head of Token Naturals, Pascal is one of the most recognizable faces in Edmonton’s startup community. He is also intentional about leveraging his position to create opportunities for other aspiring Black entrepreneurs, whether that means serving as a mentor for Startup Edmonton’s Foundations for Black Founders initiative, or partnering with the ELITE Program to host two undergraduate interns and one high school intern from the program’s first ever cohort.
We recently caught up with Pascal to discuss how he became involved with the ELITE Program, his experience so far as an internship host, advice he would give to other businesses interested in partnering with the ELITE Program, and more.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
ELITE: Just to start, can you tell us a little bit about how you first heard about the ELITE Program?
Pascal: Token Naturals works really closely with the University of Alberta — we're in the Venture Mentorship program and I got my Bachelor of Commerce there — and in the Black community, the ELITE Program stood out in terms of internship programs and the conversation around Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion that a lot of people are having in the business community right now.
It was our connection with the University of Alberta that got me introduced to Dr. McDonald, and then as the ELITE Program came to a head and there was more information out about it, I thought it was very aligned with our company values. So that's where the ELITE Program and Token cross paths — it was with our connections to the university.
After that initial introduction, what made you decide to invest in the ELITE Program as an internship host?
With this specific program, the timing was very interesting. The Black Lives Matter movement came through in the summer of 2020, and for us, the question was, where can we actually walk our talk and put time and effort back into the community?
We've done projects with Startup Edmonton and the Black Founders group, but working with ELITE was kind of a natural progression of that conversation that we've been having. We were asking questions like, how do we get more Black people into positions of influence? How do we start that?
Well, it starts right out of school. It starts with answering those questions like, where did you do your internship? What does your network position you for? So for us, after we heard the foundational concepts of the ELITE Program, deciding to partner with them was a no-brainer.
We're now just over a month into the interns actually being on the job. Can you tell me what your experience has been like so far working with ELITE Program interns?
ELITE Program interns are very impressive. Right from the off, they're very well-rounded and open. You can see that they appreciate the time and effort the business is putting into them — so they're very respectful on that side — and it shows with how eager they are to get their hands dirty.
The manufacturing space can sometimes be rushed and unglamorous, but it's been a real breath of fresh air having these interns who are curious about everything because it’s their first time seeing it. Doing a bottle run of bitters might feel like the driest thing in the world for us who have been doing this for five years because we’ve done it thousands of times, but for interns it’s interesting because they get to see how a machine works or they get to do their work hands-on.
“Why?” is also such a powerful question. It's not like an intern is trying to tell you how to run your business, but a lot of times they'll ask, why do we do it this way? And it might be the case that nobody has asked me that for three years and I don't know why we do this. And maybe from there you realize that a particular method is out of date, and maybe you can do it better. That's probably one of the most powerful things an intern can ask you. Why this? Why that?
Overall thought, it's definitely been impressive to see the talent that the ELITE Program has brought to the table.
Why do you think it's important to have internship programs like the ELITE Program, specifically for Black students?
I think back to being a Black student in the community myself, and when I was young, there wasn't really a clear path. I didn't have a strong network that I could tap into. As a second generation immigrant, it's not like your dad has this huge business network you can call up for internships. You had to go knock on doors and find your own.
The ELITE Program addresses a big gap left by systematic racism by addressing questions like, how do we get these students a seat at the table? How do we open those doors? They may not come from a background of business owners who've tried and failed businesses. Instead, they might come from a very tight-knit community with mom-and-pop-style shops. The ELITE Program helps Black students bridge that gap and expand beyond their community.
In your experience as an employer, what's the benefit of hiring students or new graduates who have experienced hands-on, work-integrated learning?
It's hard to put a price on the fact that those people have already seen these workplace scenarios. It’s one thing to know your theory, read the book and get straight As, and although that’s super valuable, there's also the benefit of having those street smarts and that real world experience. It’s important to be able to pull from past experiences in a similar work environment when it comes time to solve problems.
It’s also great just having people around who can give a fresh perspective. If I’ve been looking at a project the same way for the last five years, someone can come through and ask if I’ve thought of looking at it another way simply because they come from a different background and might bring an understanding I don't have. I think it’s really important as an employer if you want to keep that turnover in terms of the ideas coming through your business.
From your perspective as an internship host, what are you hoping to see the ELITE Program grow into in the future?
I think ELITE is already well on its way towards becoming a very reputable funnel for student interns. I would love it if in five years, businesses are looking at the ELITE Program and thinking, I hope I can get an intern from the ELITE Program this year. I hope there's a queue for businesses to wait in to get ELITE interns. I think that would be very powerful and speak well of the community. It would show that this isn’t just about hiring for diversity. These are cream of the crop students that you’re bringing into your business. I think that would be really exciting.
On the flip side, I would also love to see some of these internships evolve into full-time positions. Then you might have ELITE alumni giving back to the internship program and making sure that their businesses have space for ELITE interns down the line.
Having now spent a month as an internship host, is it an experience that you would recommend to other businesses that are interested in getting involved with the ELITE Program in the future?
I would absolutely recommend it. It's really nice to have the different perspective from the interns, and the students are great. Like they will do a great job working on certain projects, but then they will also ask me if I can give them a project related to business because that’s what they’re interested in. So then I might give them a brand positioning exercise and have them put that together for me. And then another intern might come in and they want to do more research and development. I think it's really exciting to see these students be comfortable asking for a project to work on and then being presented with things they're interested in and aligning those.
For businesses looking for extra help, I would also tell them the internships are not a hand-holding process. I don't find that I constantly have to be looking over the interns’ shoulders. I can give them a project and let them run with it.
I’ve also been very impressed with the quality of the internships because it's bringing added value to the company, as opposed to burdening the company with a coffee runner. ELITE interns want to get things done.
Is there anything you would like to add that you think might be important for people to know?
I just want to emphasize that you don’t have to be a Black-owned business to hire a Black student. The ELITE Program isn’t just for Black businesses to take on Black students. The goal is to get these students into every type of business and every type of leadership structure that they can be exposed to. The goal is to get these incoming, bright young minds in front of a bunch of different networks and expand their own network so that they have a seat at the table in three, four, or five years.