Faces of Boulder: Alex Corren
I sense the amount of time I spend pondering and searching for “my purpose” as abnormal. I return to Paul Graham’s essay, How To Do What You Love, once or twice a month. The segment of Steve Jobs’ legendary Stanford Commencement Speech, Keep Looking, Don’t Settle, is bookmarked to my “revisit often” file. And on my desk sticks a post-it note with, “This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often. If you don’t like something, change it,” from The Holstee Manifesto.
Four days before I sat down with Alex Corren, CEO and founder of UnCanny Wellness, over a coffee at Trident Café in downtown Boulder, I was sitting at a table inside Movement Climbing Gym. Writing something or another, I forget. Listening to “Ophelia” by The Lumineers on repeat, I remember. Looping one song until my ears take their duties elsewhere. Climbers, belay-ers, boulder-ers in the periphery might as well not be there. But this time, my focus tactic failed me. My ears awoke by the sound I’ve trained them to listen for.
Two tables over, Alex Corren sat at his computer. Another gentleman with a duffle slung over his shoulders and chalk smearing his pants stood the way you do when you’d chat longer if you could. I don’t know how much I missed but I marveled at what I got. Alex sat with a sort of posture that told me he’d like to return to his work but the gentleman got him talking about the right topic. His work. He used words like bioremediation and endocannabinoid. I didn’t know what they meant but I felt it. They meant a whole lot to him. He cared about them. They were important to him. I wanted to find out why.
The gentleman fled like he stuck around longer than he could afford to. I stayed seated. His posture confirmed he was happy to return to his work. I did put my laptop charger away and organized the papers spreading the desk so my exit could coincidentally intersect his. In the parking lot of Movement, I confessed my unsolicited listening. With my viable scapegoat–this column–what could have been breaching led to coffee.
I was a minute, no two minutes behind our agreed-on meeting time. I skipped the coffee. I placed my phone between us as I sat. I was unexpectedly glad to have done that. The enabling for transcription for selected answers from Alex (below), of course. The full 45-minute clipping corrected what I swore was 10.
Alex Corren is an Environmental Scientist by academia, a Historian by books, a Hemp and Sustainability expert by travel and labor, a Health and Wellness advocate by what he’s learned, the first three, and now, an Entrepreneur by wanting to do something about it. He told me his story of how a kid from New Jersey found his way to Boulder. That’s what I asked for.
He taught me about hemp’s ecological implications. He taught me about hemp’s historical imperativeness – about when it was a viable form of currency accepted in tax payment, about when Ford’s first Model-T was made from hemp and ran on hemp, and about timber industrialists, oil drillers, and cotton farmers fearing extinctions pressed for the soon-to-be eighty-year ban on the cultivating and sale of industrial hemp. That, I didn’t ask for.
That’s what came out. But that’s all part of Alex Corren’s story. It’s why a kid from New Jersey moved to Boulder with a backpack. It’s part of why he emptied his pockets “of what little money I had,” to not sit with his dream. It’s part of why he spent his days at wellness conferences and Expo’s, in laboratories and health food markets, then his nights spent bartending at the Rayback to pay the bills.
Paul Graham wrote in the essay I mentioned at the start of this story, “The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living.” There’s more to why Alex passed the Graham test. It’s how he talks about what he does.
Selected transcribed answers from audio recording
What was it about hemp? I’m curious, it sounds to me like you’ve haven’t necessarily been on a clearly defined path but it does seem to have been steered by hemp for a while now.
“What really got me so interest in hemp was the bioremediation qualities that it has. It can heal toxic soils. It can pull up heavy metals. It can suck up radiation. And it doesn’t need as much water as traditional crops. It doesn’t need fertilizer. It doesn’t need pesticides. It’s a fucking POWERHOUSE. And that’s just the plant itself. Then on top of that, the seeds are one of the most nutritionally beneficial sources of plant protein and Omega’s. You can use the fiber to build houses stronger than traditional concrete. Not even to mention the benefits of cannabinoids like CBD, like no wonder we have these endocannabinoid systems in our bodies, we grew up next to this plant, for good reason. Part of my research has been really learning about CBD, learning how there’s this compound that’s not THC, and how you can get it from hemp. So when taking the dive into this industry, it was important to me that you could get it online or at a health foods store – that was huge. You could take a dose in the morning to help with whatever is causing you problems and not be stoned. That was incredible to me, people don’t want to wake up and get high but they do wake up with issues every day or maybe they just want to stay healthy.
You mentioned earlier hemps nearly age-old historical impacts. Could you talk more on those?
“Hemp goes back thousands of years to ancient China, ancient indo-China cultures. But even in the United States, we have an extremely rich history with this plant. There were times in U.S. history – and we’ve only been around for a few hundred years – there was a time in U.S. history when it was illegal not to grow hemp because it helped the War effort so much. Things like rope or food security. You could pay your taxes in hemp. And then, you know, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington cultivated hemp for its industrial applications. Kentucky had some of the best hemp growing in the world. And so now, we’re retracing our steps, rediscovering this plant, and what’s really cool is that the people pushing forward this really progressive hemp legislation, which may be signed into law by the end of the month in the new Farm Bill, they’re mostly republicans from these Southern states and it’s because, at the end of the day, this plant is healing people, and it can save Rural America. It WILL revive the economy, it will reinvigorate the entire rural economy. It’s beautiful to see all these traditionally conservative politicians pushing for hemp farming.”
Talk to me about the ban and the Farm Bill. Coming up on 80 years, you said. From everything I’m hearing – like at one time you could pay your taxes in hemp – that’s a fun fact, one, but what happened that hemp then gets banned?
“So it was kind of a combination of things. Well first another fun fact, the original Model T Ford was designed to run on hemp fuel and it was created out of a hemp plastic body. It was literally a hemp car. You can try to imagine what the world would have looked like today if we had gone down that path. But basically what happened – and it starts to sound a little bit like a conspiracy at this point – but one of the main people that was against it and started making smear campaigns against hemp had massive, massive investments in of forests that we’re still cutting down today for paper. Hemp would have made that completely obsolete because it’s a better source for paper than trees because you can grew it in a few months verses waiting 25 years and then having to clear cut a forest. So it was partially about the paper industry and then also while that’s happening, hemp gets roped in with marijuana as this abused drug because it was, honestly, easy to pin on ‘reckless Jazz musicians’ and ‘dangerous immigrants’, so it attached to this stigma and became illegal. Before then, hemp was a significant plant to every culture that had access to it – more coming west from Asia, less so in Americas but that’s because of climate differences. But we’re totally coming out of this Dark Age for this plant. It was roped in with bad drugs. Now it’s reemerging as what it truly is – this complete industrial powerhouse that provides food, medicine, fuel, shelter, fiber, and has technology applications: plastics and graphene and super conducting materials, it’s crazy. If people are excited about the marijuana industry and how big that could get, hemps going to be even bigger, without a doubt. Not only is the CBD side of the industry going to be big, but so will the fiber applications, the seed as this super food source, the industrial, the technological. It’s a disruptive plant technology is really what it is. At the end of the day, everyone is going to be better for it.”
How much did the health side of things play into things for you? Was there something that made you go, you know, like, ‘Wow I need to bring this to more people, I think this can help a lot of people’?
Well, for me, I’ve always been really into health just for my own personal wellbeing. So I went into college pre-med actually and then I got stripped away from that thinking maybe Western medicine isn’t the best choice for our health. But also these environmental concerns are swelling and that’s obviously a huge contributor to our health so I remember thinking maybe the place I can make an impact is in the intersection of sustainable food production and nutrition… Then as I learned more about CBD, I came to understand it as this entirely new tool for maintaining human health. And there were people getting off of medications, having relief for the first time in decades and that seemed incredibly powerful to me. And now, for instance, I’ll get an email like, ‘your product is making me feel better, I got in a car accident 30 years ago and now I can sleep at night because X doesn’t bother me anymore,’ that’s an indescribable feeling. But what attracted me to it originally, I’ve always been curious about how I can stay on top of my health, what I can I do to not get sick down the road. The best health insurance, in my mind, is health maintenance, doing the right thing now so hopefully I don’t have to worry about it later. And CBD is one of our number one plant allies for doing so. And so, when looking to start up the business, this powerful plant compound became the obvious choice to rally behind and help get out to the people.”
Bringing it back to you for a second, I’m just curious, what does your health regimen look like, someone that studies this area, what’s your diet look like? I know there are tons of debates going on in the world of nutrition, I’m curious to get your approach.
Yeah, there’s certainly a lot going on. I myself have been vegan for over a year now, but getting to that point was a very gradual process. But the two biggest reasons for me were one, I really do think it [veganism] is optimal for human health, if done right. Vegan alone does not always imply health, I think a plant-based diet done right definitely does. But then also, the environmental factor. As an environmentalist and someone who cares about that stuff and studied it, I felt like the number one thing I could do, everyday, is change what was on my plate. More than not using a straw, more than buying a hybrid car–not supporting the industrial animal industry seemed to be the number one thing I could do. I’ve also been playing around with intermittent fasting the past few months, which has been really exciting to learn about and experience.
Last question from me, what’s next for UnCanny? Where’s your time and attention focused right now?
Right now, all my time is focused on guiding UnCanny though this very exciting transitory phase as we prepare for this quickly rising tide of interest to come into the industry. The past two years have been kind of crazy as hemp and cannabis has been reemerging. The true wild west. In a sense it’s been a great testing ground for me to learn what works and what doesn’t, and I’m super fortunate to have support from awesome local business like Alfafla’s, Lucky’s Market, and Trident Cafe, that are all excited to see what we do next. Now that full legalization is in sight, I’m doing all I can to dial-in the brand, roll out improved and bad-ass products, build a team to support grow this beast more efficiently than I can alone. I’m applying to pitch at the upcoming Naturally Boulder pitch slam… so hopefully that helps to fuel this next stage of growth. Exciting things are certainly on the horizon.