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Talent in Cannabis: a ‘rainbow’ approach to business with Dharsh Casinathen

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Dharsh Casinathen is President and Co-Founder at Joyleaf, a cannabis dispensary in New Jersey. Joyleaf, which opened on December 9, 2023, is the only dispensary in New Jersey that actually puts products on its shelves, creating a warm and inviting shopping experience that puts cannabis education and the consumer experience first. Born in Sri Lanka and a child of war, Dharsh shares:

  • Her journey from Sri Lanka, to Toronto, to New York
  • How low-income housing led to a chronic illness that was reset by cannabis
  • How her experience at PepsiCo set her up for a successful cannabis career
  • How the Ganjier cannabis sommelier program positively impacted her dispensary
  • What she would like to see change in New Jersey cannabis
  • How she leverages her team to overcome gender bias
Having personally experienced the benefits of cannabis for women’s health issues, I’m committed to advocating and educating on this topic.

– Dharsh Casinathen

Dharsh Casinathen, President & Co-Founder, Joyleaf – photo and core skills


What were you doing before working in cannabis? 

I’m from Sri Lanka and a child of war. In the early 80s, my parents left Sri Lanka and relocated to Toronto, Canada, where I grew up in a traditional South Asian household. From a young age, I was taught a simple formula: hard work plus a good education equals opportunities. This principle has guided me throughout my life.

In our community, typical career paths for women included becoming a doctor, lawyer, or accountant. I became a CPA and started my career at KPMG, followed by a 13-year tenure at PepsiCo, handling major brands like Frito-Lay,  Quaker, and Tropicana. My initial 7 years in the Toronto office led to an opportunity to move to New York in 2014, where I was equipped with a green card and a chance to further my career. I worked at PepsiCo until 2020 and then found my way into the cannabis industry.

Which skills from your pre-cannabis career helped you the most in cannabis?

Working at PepsiCo taught me about business, specifically how to manage a profit and loss statement, people management, and how to execute business initiatives. Today, my approach to business is deeply rooted in problem-solving. One of my biggest strengths is harmonizing processes and optimizing team dynamics. I cultivate strong collaborative teams by leveraging individual strengths to enhance overall team performance. My mentor Jason Ackerman shared with me an important principle – think of a business as creating a ‘rainbow’ of skills and personalities that work together. All of those colors have to emerge together to see the big picture of your business and bring an idea to life.

I consider myself a builder. At PepsiCo, I had the privilege of developing our e-commerce division from scratch, growing it from $100 million to over $1.5 billion. This success was driven by the right blend—or ‘rainbow”—of people and processes that I helped organize and lead.


What drew you to the cannabis industry? What is your ‘why’?

Growing up in a South Asian household in Toronto, my early years were marked by health challenges. I was often sick as a child. After immigrating to Toronto, my family lived in low-income housing, and below us was a laundromat which resulted in our apartment experiencing poor air quality, which exacerbated my severe asthma. I visited the hospital regularly and was consistently on steroids until my family could afford a house with better living conditions, this would change for me at the age of 12.

The long-term effects of steroids disrupted my gut microbiome. I was diagnosed with an immune disease in my 20s. I struggled with inflammation and health issues until my mid-30s. It wasn’t until I was 36 that cannabis entered my life. I had depression while undergoing a significant life change, so I turned to cannabis. What I didn’t realize is that it also began to reset my endocannabinoid system.

In 2019, I told my doctor that I hadn’t needed my medication for nine months. I shared that I had made lifestyle changes, including diet, meditation, and consuming cannabis. Off the record, she attributed my results to cannabis and all other factors as well and she introduced me to the concept of the endocannabinoid system. 

Tell us about your first role in the cannabis industry.

I had a pivotal moment when I was offered a chance to join a multi-state operator and work directly under Jason Ackerman, who would later become my business partner. He challenged my professional identity, saying, “You’re not just a CFO; you’re a president.” His confidence in me was a game-changer. I chose to follow Jason due to his impressive background, which I was familiar with from my time at PepsiCo.

At the brink of the pandemic, I left my secure position at PepsiCo to dive into the cannabis industry. This decision led me to manage a 60,000-square-foot facility in Canada, where I applied my expertise in organizing people and processes. We achieved topline growth and were on the road to break-even results through disciplined daily meetings and strategic supply chain management.

In 2021, Jason left the MSO, and following his departure, I soon left as well. In Aug 2023 New Jersey updated its cannabis regulations, and Jason invited me to join him in a new venture. This opportunity led to the creation of Joyleaf, which officially opened on December 9, 2023. During the process of opening the dispensary, I pursued certification as a Ganjier, which significantly deepened my expertise in the industry.

JOYLeAF CANNABIS DISPENSARY – logo with smiling illustration

Tell us about your role as President at Joyleaf.

At Joyleaf, we want everyone to feel comfortable and empowered when they walk through our doors, free from any embarrassment. What sets us apart is our unique shopping experience. Jason’s background is in retail – he was the Founder and former CEO of Fresh Direct – and I have a background in consumer packaged goods. We’ve leveraged our experience by designing our dispensary to allow customers to browse the shelves themselves. 

We believe people already know how to shop. We’re the only dispensary in New Jersey that displays products on shelves and provides placebos for items like edibles to preview what’s inside, alongside the actual packaging.

We also place informative 4×3 product cards on each shelf, detailing key attributes like price, THC content, and the potential effects to aid decision-making. At Joyleaf, it’s all about finding the right product for the right moment, catering to your specific needs.

Our observations reveal five primary reasons people visit. They seek to:

  1.  Have a better relationship with sleep
  2. Treat aches and pains
  3. Treat a medicinal condition or symptom
  4. Enjoy a good time
  5. Relax after a stressful day

We guide each customer, asking how they want to feel and what the moment will look like for them when they consume products, helping them realize the potential impact of their choices. This way, we make shopping for cannabis a tailored and insightful journey.

JOYLeAF store interior
JOYLeAF store interior
JOYLeAF store interior
GANJIER — Be among the best. Pursue the gold standard of cannabis connoisseur training and certification. Learn More

How has the Ganjier program helped you operate Joyleaf?

My cannabis knowledge has reached a whole new level, and it’s completely changed my relationship with the plant and positively impacted Joyleaf. Now, with my deepened education, I understand that the typical narratives around cannabis don’t capture its essence or potential benefits. 

At Joyleaf, we shift the conversation to focus on individual needs and desired experiences. We train our squad to guide customers in selecting the right product for the right moment. Additionally, we emphasize responsible usage, especially when it comes to dosing. It’s important to remind customers that not everyone should consume an entire joint by themselves. Moderation is the key to a safe and enjoyable experience.

Not only has my education helped me educate customers, but it has changed the way I train my squad and hire. When I hire, I’m excited and confident about educating my squad about cannabis. Prior cannabis experience is not a priority for me because I have that content covered and can effectively train on it. What I do need is a team that understands retail experience. For example, my general manager must know how to operate a retail store, manage inventory, and have hospitality experience. I enjoy training in cannabis, so I will hire employees who have other skills that are not my primary strength.

JOYLeAF ribbon cutting store opening with Dharsh Casinathen and colleagues


Where do you see your career going in cannabis? 

I’d love to open another store that retains the experiential quality of Joyleaf but is more operationally efficient. Learning how to streamline our operations while maintaining our customer-focused approach is a key goal.

From an educational standpoint, I’m particularly passionate about the intersection of cannabis and women’s health. Scientifically, women have an abundance of CB2 receptors in their wombs, which opens up significant opportunities for health-focused cannabis products. Having personally experienced the benefits of cannabis for women’s health issues, I’m committed to advocating and educating on this topic.

What are one or two things you’d like to see change in the cannabis industry?

New Jersey has yet to finalize regulations for cannabis consumption lounges, presenting a significant challenge. Without these lounges, we miss a crucial opportunity to destigmatize and educate about cannabis in a regulated, safe environment. Permitting lounges would greatly enhance public understanding and acceptance of cannabis.

On a personal note, navigating the cannabis industry as a woman comes with its own set of hurdles. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, was an Indian woman who once said, “Sometimes men don’t want to hear a woman say something, they need to hear men say it.” I find that’s still true, and I leverage my team to overcome this hurdle. Sometimes, when I’m in a negotiation, I recognize that I’m not going to get as far as Jason would, so I’ll have him step in. I don’t like that there’s a gender bias, but I feel grateful to have a partner that I can lean on when the bias comes up. Sometimes passing the conversation to Jason is a strategic management choice that allows me to keep my interactions aligned. I’d like to see the cannabis industry move to a place where there is more equity.


If you like this, you may like these Talent in Cannabis Profiles:

Kathleen Hegedus – and an unexpected lifelong passion for cannabis

Hilary Black – From grassroots to C-suite

Claire Moloney – passionate about being a first cannabis hire

Kate Steinberg – transferrable skills leading to a dynamic career path

Adrian Livous –Cultivating the Louisiana cannabis market

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