iGrow's Acapulco Gold Rush 

Owner Dhar Mann's bold business moves have engendered a backlash, but it's not slowing down his plans.

Dhar Mann used to be neutral on pot and legalization. But then Oaksterdam galvanized both his business and activist sense, and iGrow was born. Mann sunk profits he reaped from the mortgage industry into a new hydroponics concern, iGrow; one that would operate like no other hydroponics store in the Bay — out in the open, advertising a specialty in growing medicinal herb.

But that openness cost Mann plenty. When iGrow launched in January to incredible media coverage, Mann quickly lost every single one of his distributors. They were worried about selling to an out-in-the-open cannabis hydroponics supplier. Suddenly, iGrow's warehouse went barren, and online reviews came in — savaging the upstart. "It was a huge setback," Mann said. "They cut us off."

Without caution or foresight, Mann had shed the thin negligee covering the Bay Area's sexiest economic asset. Hydroponics stores do well selling to amateur and professional growers of California's most valuable crop, yet in all hydro stores, the word marijuana is verboten.

So Mann went to the grey market to refill his shelves, buying from other retailers. Simultaneously, he said he went around the powerful interstate hydroponics supply distributors directly to overseas manufacturers. He made deals to cut out the middle man and become one himself — starting distribution company GrowOp Technologies to import and wholesale hydroponics supplies to iGrow, its franchises, and other retailers at a severe discount.

During a visit last week, iGrow's airplane hangar-size retail showroom near Oakland airport evoked a mellow Costco. An array of fluorescent lights rotated over four medicinal plants near the sales counter. Forklifts shifted pallets of nutrients, soil, buckets, and hoses set in lengthy rows. Fit, twentysomething females and dreadlocked white dudes price shopped.

Bounding down the stairs in a well-cut suit, 25-year-old Mann conversed with his staff of nineteen. He was in meetings all day for the May 22 launch of his "University of Cannabis." Hundreds of customers, activists, and politicians were scheduled to attend. Led by Chancellor Leo Bazille — a sorta shady former Oakland councilman — University of Cannabis launched with eight live courses on growing, law, and cannabusiness for $50 each. Taught by pro gardeners, long-time activists, and Mann himself, each class will then be available online. Mann will then ramp up University of Cannabis' online offerings to twenty courses that can enroll up to 3,000 students each. It's just one of the countless moves the young Mann is making.

Born and raised in Oakland, and the son of entrepreneurs, Mann dropped out of UC Davis at nineteen to create a company brokering the last bubble: mortgages. At its peak, he says he moved $40 million in loans a month, pocketing bigger salaries than his professors and employing dozens of his peers. Mann got out before the bubble burst, and went to Oaksterdam looking for his next enterprise. (He also has a limo service.)

In addition to iGrow, University of Cannabis, and GrowOp Technologies, Mann is selling exclusive franchise rights to iGrow territories across California and looking to other states. He's courting venture capital from Wall Street. "They're crazy for this industry," he said. "They want in."

More irons in the fire, GrowOp Technologies has sold forty 35-foot, custom-made tractor trailers outfitted as self-contained farms. At $65,000 a piece, they combine the benefits of a sealed, off-the-shelf location to grow thirty to forty pounds of product every sixty days, with the portability of a mobile SCUD missile. Roll them up to a property, hook up a 200-amp marine power cable and standard water, and you're online. Out back behind iGrow, two tractor trailers sit in the weeds — under rehabilitation. The global economic downturn mired entire fleets of such trailers. GrowOp Tech is bullish on them.

Upstairs in his office on his MacBook Pro, he read countless inquiry e-mails; one from a former superior court judge in Texas who wanted to be the University of Cannabis' "first student" and a spokesperson. He had e-mails from soon-to-be students in China and Germany.

Mann has also set up a system of four certifications, from "Seedling" to "Cannalebrity." Their value comes from their scarcity, which, like any other college, is maintained by the barriers to achievement that he's erected. He's in regular contact with local regulators, so that on the day governments stipulate the need for some type of accreditation, University of Cannabis intends to be at the forefront, joining leading educational group Oaksterdam University.

Mann said he has Oaksterdam University owner Richard Lee's tacit blessing for the competing school. Maybe because Lee's classes are packed. People all over the world are looking to the Bay Area for best practices, and Mann is keen on doing well personally by teaching growing and law globally.

Out in the parking lot, more customers pulled in. A banner for the on-site cannabis doctor waved in the breeze. Passenger planes out of the Oakland airport hurled themselves into a variably cloudy sky. Looking out across the airport's neighboring wasteland, an iGrow manager reflected on the stark new reality of this once-black market.

The old guard somehow didn't anticipate normalization would lead to capitalization, he says. He doesn't understand why or how. Across Interstate 880, on Oakland's rougher streets, they have a name for the process, though: "Big bank take little bank." Every time.

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