“It wasn’t just an industry, it was one that was under the radar, illegal at the federal level and unknown. The complex business models had to be learned and banked appropriately.”
The cannabis industry is finally banked! However, the journey has not been smooth sailing. Today, we have the privilege of sitting down with the brilliant mind behind Safe Harbor Financial, the trailblazing Founder & CEO, Sundie Seefried. With her unrivaled expertise, she has not only processed over $14 billion in cannabis funds across more than 40 states but has also achieved the seemingly impossible feat of listing her fintech company on NASDAQ.
In this interview, Sundie discusses the challenges and opportunities that have come with banking the budding cannabis industry, brick by brick. Brace yourselves for an insightful Q&A session as we dive into the mind of this visionary leader, where innovation meets financial revolution in the most dank and daring way possible.
As a brief introduction, how did your career path lead you to the cannabis industry?
It’s rather an odd story as I was headed to retirement in Nov. 2014 when my contract with Partner Colorado Credit Union, as CEO, was ending at that time. A couple attorneys I knew well had invited me to drinks to discuss why their cannabis business clients could not get bank accounts. While I told them I would check with my regulators, I was sure they would discourage any move to bank the industry and I was most certainly wrong! My regulator at the time, Chris Myklebust, gave me a handful of documents and encouraged me to continue researching and return with a plan. Once I knew how bad and unsafe Colorado was due to the industry being unbanked, and after I educated the board, we all agreed we couldn’t ignore what we learned and we owed it to our members to improve community safety and attempt to create safe and transparent banking to the industry. The rest, as they say, is history.
As the founder and CEO of Safe Harbor Financial, you have played a crucial role in providing banking solutions to the cannabis industry. Could you share some insights into the unique challenges and regulatory hurdles you've encountered while building this business?
It is worth stating right up front, the entire launch, development and implementation of cannabis banking was such a challenge; probably the greatest challenge in my career. First, the amount of cash that required monitoring and validating was substantial and the subsequent reporting created such a compliance burden and that required expertise.
The most important thing to remember is that financial institutions are responsible for protecting the financial system across the country and that means we, as bankers, must ensure we do not allow illicit money into the financial system. Here we are talking about:
- A black market history of cannabis and the related funds earned in a black market trying to make its way into mainstream coupled with
- An active black market operating in plain sight and trying to mix their illicit dollars with legal dollars in order to get it banked in the financial system.
This requires a great deal of specialized knowledge of both the industry and Bank Secrecy/Anti-Money laundering regulations; combining both to protect the financial institution and the financial system.
Safe Harbor Financial has processed over $14 billion in cannabis funds across more than 40 states. What strategies and practices have contributed to your company's success in navigating the complex landscape of cannabis banking?
Actually, we just crossed $18 billion and headed quickly to $20 billion this year. The key to our success, besides implementing solid BSA policies, procedures and training, was that we remained flexible and followed the needs of this unique industry as it emerged. It wasn’t just an industry, it was one that was under the radar, illegal at the federal level and unknown. The complex business models had to be learned and banked appropriately. As they emerged, we evolved and since their banking options were limited, we knew we had to keep rising to the occasion and providing new and more options to meet their needs, know the money and protect the credit union.
One other key to difficult challenges is having sufficient perseverance to see a project to completion, no matter how difficult. Once we knew the industry and the professionals with whom we worked, we couldn’t quit on them.
Breaking the stigma surrounding cannabis banking is a significant accomplishment. How have you worked to educate and gain the trust of financial institutions and regulators in order to facilitate banking services for the cannabis industry?
This was a tough challenge from the beginning and some financial institutions were afraid to accept anything from Safe Harbor, but that worked in our favor because the companies taking checks and fund transfers from our clients soon became clients of Safe Harbor as well. One big happy family moving funds between each other and not worrying about having their accounts closed by their bank.
We did two things to build trust that included:
1) write a book on our compliance level that would build confidence across the board with regulators, law enforcement and financial institutions; creating so much transparency they would understand our careful approach and
2) get on stage over 100 times in two years to educate, educate and educate; again, building trust.
I will say that financial institutions pretty much shunned those of us banking the industry from the start, but I’m guessing it was a wise choice for Partner Colorado Credit Union.
In your experience, what are some of the most significant benefits that the cannabis industry has seen as a result of having access to banking services? How has it positively impacted businesses and the overall market?
People often ask me if I look back and see what impact we had on the industry and I reply that I don’t and haven’t because I had no time to reflect and still do not. Maybe someday I will reflect and see it all. However, I do know that leading in banking brought more banking options which created safety for more states.
It also gave the industry the ability to be legitimate tax paying entities in the mainstream and demonstrate transparency and accountability within financial market places. The way they had to bank previously just cast a shadow on the industry overall and gave rise to some shady operations trying to move cash for them.
As a woman leading a NASDAQ-listed fintech business in the cannabis industry, what advice do you have for other women who aspire to make a mark in traditionally male-dominated sectors? How have you overcome obstacles and biases throughout your journey?
For the most part, I simply ignore the biases and have operated with an attitude that it’s not my problem but their problem if they don’t work well with women. As a woman in a male dominated market, I do run into unpleasant men trying to intimate and minimize my existence. I don’t think I alone think two things being:
1) their poor wife and/or daughters to be stuck with a man like this and
2) for what they are compensating by acting out against the opposite sex or any other difference for that matter.
It just makes no sense to see anything other than a business opportunity across the table; no matter sex, religion, race, etc… It’s just good business sense to cooperate, grow, expand horizons – be inclusive.
What’s next for Sundie?
Next is difficult to pinpoint. Given the recent transition to a public entity, I find myself in the throes of new challenges, which takes so much time and effort. I think after the first year of establishment as a public company, I may be able to breathe, but not today. Right now, I have over 50 employees and a board counting on my attention to move the ball forward and that takes all my attention. People think you can have it all…. Not my experience between creating a company from nothing like Safe Harbor and then moving to a public entity.
It was a great pleasure to have this conversation with Sundie Seefried, Founder & CEO of Safe Harbor Financial. Readers who wish to keep up with Safe Harbor Financial are invited to do so through the company's website.