Maurice “Reese Xavier” Walton ’98, M.S. ’00, received an exclusive gift for his birthday this year, and he freely admits he is taking a license to continue the celebration all year long.

CEO and managing partner of HT23 Growers, Walton was one of just 32 Illinois craft growers to be granted a license by the Department of Agriculture to cultivate, extract, and infuse cannabis. More than 450 growers applied for the license to operate in the recreational cannabis space.

Walton’s team says it is among the first African American cannabis cultivators to receive a license to operate in Illinois, where recreational use became legal in January 2020.

In May of that year, marijuana sales hit $44,317,385, and in June of 2020, the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation reported recreational cannabis sales exceeded $100 million. The number had reached $127,794,220 by July of 2021.

The sky-high potential profit margins sparked Walton’s interest, while the opportunity to use HT23 to promote social equity appealed to partner Dr. Angelyn Anderson ’95, M.S. ’97.

“One key thing about us is that we are rooted in social equity,’’ said Anderson, who holds a master’s degree in social justice and a doctorate in ethical leadership, as well as a certificate in dispensary and patient care. She’s also a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.

“We understand what the cannabis industry has been and what it looks like, and it doesn’t look anything like us. Look at the number of people who have been incarcerated for the use of cannabis versus those who are making millions from it. We want to build a business rooted in social justice in Black and Brown communities.”

Anderson and Walton met as undergraduates living in Watterson Towers at Illinois State and remained close friends after graduation.

While Anderson pursued a career in higher education, Walton spent nearly 25 years working as a learning and development leader in corporate America. In 2012 the serial entrepreneur launched HT23, named for the chapter of his beloved Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and his Masonic Lodge.

Having earned a master certification in cannabis, Walton asked Anderson to help lead a team of seven to build HT23 Growers, which Anderson compares to supermarkets.

“We create edibles, extract THC to create vape pens, and sell to dispensaries that sell to consumers. We’re like a cannabis grocery store for dispensaries and infusers,’’ she said.

Securing the license was just the first step on what promises to be a long—and expensive—journey. Walton said HT23 needs to raise between $4 and $7 million to become operational by December 2021, and though he realizes the daunting scope of the task, he’s laser-focused on the goal.

“We want to create opportunities in communities where there are none. Cannabis is a new space right now like IT and social media a decade ago.  It is important to us that we get into the industry as soon as possible, and it’s important to remember cannabis is a business that requires all the tools and talent—accounting, sales, marketing—that any other business requires. The time is now for us to take hold of the industry and create opportunities for people of color.”