Getting personal with Empower CBD’s LGBTQ+ founder, Trista Okel
As we open our eyes to the beauty of the world and come out of the treacherous fog we’ve been in, the opportunity to explore new brands and people standing up for what’s good and just has never been more necessary. And as we celebrate PRIDE and honor the extraordinary people that make up the LGBTQ community, we want to honor one phenomenal female founder who is doing great things, including having a brand that we have added to our repertoire of daily “relief”.
Trista Okel, an LGBTQ female entrepreneur, created Empower BodyCare (a plant-based premium brand line of CBD infused topicals) in her kitchen. Wanting to help ease her mother’s chronic pain with a more homeopathic, natural remedy, it led her to a formulation that resulted in CBD-infused bath salts, lotions, and oils with scents that make you feel like you’re at a spa (and not a doctor’s office). Infused with lavender, bergamot, lemon, verbana, and natural scents, the vegan-friendly, non-GMO line of Empower products feel less like medicine and more like luxurious relaxation.
Okel is the kind of female entrepreneur we love supporting because she stands for equality, social equity, and positivity. Plus, the product name says it all.
make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights
And while the origin definition of the word, empower, is power in and of itself, Okel’s Empower means something even deeper: End Marijuana Prohibition, Organize Women, Enact Reform (as in drug policy reform). Advocating since she was able, Okel has been arrested twice—for possession, another time for activism—and she chose to choose action by taking an active role in radical reform. Her story is one of true empowerment.
Q + A with Trista Okel
What did you do prior to Empower BodyCare?
Prior to launching Empower BodyCare, I was an aromatherapist and a wine steward before that. I’ve always had a keen sense of smell, a love of chemistry, and an interest in natural remedies. By combining the right essential oils with cannabis, we get amazing synergies which make for the most effective products.
From cooking in a crockpot to creating simply elegant CBD products, what are some of your favorite parts of the process from how you started to where the brand has come?
I am a purpose-driven person. Helping people is by far my favorite part of life. When I made my first product in a crockpot in my kitchen in late 2004, I did so to help my mom, who deals with severe arthritis pain. My goal was to help her get relief without relying on pharmaceuticals. To my surprise, from even the first iteration of what is now my flagship product, mom got great relief. I started sharing the oil with friends, elders, and medical marijuana patients and kept getting the same feedback.
Being able to have a positive impact on people’s lives, especially as the brand grows and we reach more people, is an amazing experience.
I have hand-written letters and emails hanging on a bulletin board in my office from the strangers who wrote to the company about their experiences with my products. It’s these people who make my work worthwhile. They are my favorite parts of my journey with the brand.
I also love creating beautiful products. Products that are safe, effective, are aromatherapeutic, and make for a great user experience. When I create a new product, I formulate based on all of that criteria as well ingredient sourcing. It ends up being a fun exercise, full of science, balancing aesthetics, and ethically sourcing ingredients. The end goal is always to make the best products made with the highest quality ingredients for the best user experience. From oils that feel luxurious and absorb quickly to lotions that are smooth, soothing, and moisturizing, it’s truly a pleasure to create new products to benefit our customers.
As an advocate of the LGBTQ+ and Black and Brown communities, I genuinely appreciate that you utilize your brand to further the message of unity. What do you ultimately hope to see happen through your own advocacy and company messaging and partnerships? Are there advocacy organizations you’d like to work with in the future?
I have to provide some context for the activism of my youth and the advocacy of today. I started advocating for LGBT rights in my teens, long before I came out when I was 19. I continued volunteering and marching into my twenties, seeing very little change until the late 90’s. Being able to do something productive in the face of injustice has always been imperative for me. In 2003, I was arrested for three small cannabis plants, or “clones,” which is a felony charge. I decided to go to trial in August 2004, and a jury of my peers found me not guilty. I got lucky. I was privileged—I had the means to get a loan to take the case to trial and I was found not guilty. Not everyone is that lucky.
Being acquitted was a privilege, and that privilege has driven me to do better, be better, and do whatever I can to help put an end to systemic injustices. The War on Drugs is racist. And it is the responsibility of those of us with privilege to help end it. So, I started volunteering and working on political campaigns to change the law.
In October of 2004, I was lobbying congress with MPP (Marijuana Policy Project) and volunteering with ASA (Americans for Safe Access), a medical cannabis advocacy group. ASA planned a rally on the front steps of Health and Human Services, and 14 of us sat down on the building’s steps with a banner across our chests with the names of thousands of doctors’ names who had recommended cannabis to their patients, with the messaging “thousands of doctors can’t be wrong, cannabis is medicine.” 14 of us were arrested for “incommoding,” and taken to jail. In the jail cell, we discussed polls and it struck me that women were the key to legalizing cannabis. Women polled at about a 30% approval rating of cannabis legalization at that time, so I wanted to help change their hearts and minds about the plant. It was there that the acronym for my company was born: End Marijuana Prohibition, Organize Women, Enact Reform (as in drug policy reform).
It was only a month later that I made my first batch of oil for my mom. Over the years of giving my topical oil to people who provided me with great feedback on my formulation tweaks, I realized I was changing hearts and minds of people who had never “used” cannabis before. They could apply a topical product to their skin, not feel “high,” and get relief from aches and pains. They started questioning their ideas about cannabis and opening their minds to the therapeutic properties because the products worked.
It was at that point that I realized that I could make the most change by developing a brand and a line of products that were approachable, “ambassador products” for cannabis/hemp and donate to various humanitarian and social justice organizations.
It’s through this kind of advocacy and by having conversations with others about oppression, that we have the most opportunities to change how we treat each other in this world.
By partnering with other companies that treat their teams well, care about their impact on society, and want to make change, I find I can grow the footprint of my impact on this world. I am a huge fan of synergies, both in formulating and in life, and I believe that the more synergies we have, the better. Partnering with farms like East Fork, a USDA certified organic and Sun + Earth Certified hemp farm only increases our impact.
I’d love to work with the Last Prisoner Project, the Equal Justice Initiative, and smaller, local organizations. I think donating on a local level is more helpful in changing hearts and minds within our communities.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned as you continue to grow in the cannabis space?
Always be ready to pivot. The cannabis space, which encompasses hemp/CBD/marijuana, is ever changing. From rules and regulations changing to market fluctuations, the ability to pivot is key to running a healthy business. I’ve also learned that LGBTQ+ women in the cannabis space have an uphill battle in raising funds for their businesses. A study recently showed that LGBTQ+ founders bring in less than 0.7% of venture capital money. That doesn’t bring cannabis/hemp into the equation, which definitely lowers that percentage. My goal is to build Empower so as to be able invest in women, LGBTQ+, and minority owned businesses. It’s important to be the change we want to see in this world.
Women in Cannabis/Hemp is still quite a rising tide, and as more and more female founders get involved, did you have partnerships that helped guide you in the process? If so, who, how has that enabled you to grow, and what would you do differently?
Early in my career in the cannabis industry, through organizations like Women Grow, I was able to network with and cultivate relationships with other women in cannabis. We’ve cheered each other on, been incensed when one of us faced an injustice, and rejoiced in one another’s successes. Still, I have yet to have the opportunity to partner with another female founded company.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs considering getting involved with CBD skincare and beauty?
To be honest, it’s a saturated market that has advanced just enough to be driven by big money. Unless you have millions of dollars to grow your brand, or you are fine with being a very small business (maybe farmer’s markets and making hand-crafted products at home), it’s not a space you can compete in. I say this not to discourage young entrepreneurs, but rather, to guide them to use their resources and passions to focus on market segments where they will find the most success. Find a niche where you can make an impact and stay focused.
What is on the docket for the year ahead?
I am excited to launch a number of new products, speak at some conferences and expos, and continue to grow Empower. I’m excited that more people are getting vaccinated so we can emerge from this pandemic and start meeting in person again.
If there’s anyone who understands the ins and outs of CBD, it’s Trista Okel, Empower BodyCare’s Founder and CEO. An early activist and industry pioneer, Trista first tapped the power of the hemp plant in 2004 when she crafted a DIY CBD oil to help her mom manage pain. Realizing the vast potential to help others seeking improved comfort and wellbeing, she was among the first entrepreneurs nationwide to formulate high-quality CBD topicals for mass production – years before the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Her foresight, grit and insistence on the highest quality have made Empower BodyCare among the most respected CBD topical companies in the country.
Today, Empower BodyCare products have secured a far-reaching, loyal fan base of consumers seeking the utmost quality and purity in their CBD routines. Trista is regarded as one of the most influential women in the burgeoning CBD movement, frequently sought out by industry organizations, including the Oregon Cannabis Association and the Cultivation Classic, and prominently featured in media outlets such as Vogue, High Times, Civilized and the Cannabiz Journal for her expertise.
At the helm of Empower BodyCare, Trista spearheads the company’s strategic direction, product development and uncovers fresh opportunities for the business to expand its presence online and in stores. Even with steep competition in a quickly growing industry, Trista is dedicated to leading her company the right way by paying special attention to formulation, compliance and sourcing.
Before becoming an advocate for plant-based wellness, Trista got her start in aromatherapy. She helped her clients through the trials and stresses of everyday life by harnessing the power of plants to rebalance, reset and revitalize. This led Trista to CBD – another plant-derived compound that offered incredible value to humans yet was stigmatized until recent years. Determined to move the needle, Trista became a vocal advocate in the movement for recreational use, lending her voice to the Marijuana Policy Project and Americans for Safe Access.
As her approach to activism evolved throughout the 2000s, Trista realized she could convince more people of the cannabinoid’s incredible potential by creating high-quality, non-addictive and effective products. At the core of Trista’s career in the aromatherapy and CBD world is an unyielding desire to help people live more comfortable and enjoyable lives.
Trista lives with her wife, Michele (Empower BodyCare’s chief operations officer), and their two dogs, Lucy and Riley, in Portland, Oregon.