In Conversation With: JMCC’s In-house Counsel & Jamaican Director
Ashley-Ann Foster’s love of advocacy led her to the law, her ideals to politics, and her curiosity to stints as a prime-time TV host in Jamaica. Such a multi-faceted career might take a lifetime of work for many. But she hasn’t hit 40 yet.
However, had you told Ashley-Ann five years ago that in 2021 she’d be a senior executive in a global medicinal cannabis company, she would not have believed you.
As a child growing up in Montego Bay, Ashley was always a top student with wide-ranging ambitions and a yearning to travel, and aimed early at a legal career as a route to get her there. By 2011, she had earned an LLB with First Class Honours at the University of Buckingham and an Upper Second-Class Honours Masters in Commercial Law at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
After interning at the London offices of a leading global business law firm though, she realized she wasn’t cut out for the obsessive focus on chalking up “billable hours”, which is the dominant path to partnership and the legal industry’s definition of “success”. And, after several years of study and working abroad, she keenly missed her home on “the Rock”, as Jamaicans fondly refer to it. So, in 2012, she moved from London to Kingston and set up chambers with her mother as Robinson-Foster & Associates.
Deeply committed to Jamaica's socio-economic growth and a self-described “patriotic non-partisan”, in her late teens Ashley-Ann was briefly involved in the youth group of the Jamaica Labour Party. After her return home from London, became a candidate for the People's National Party.
Her political experience honed her public-speaking and debating skills, and led to an invitation to co-host CVM Live, one of Jamaica TV’s most popular nightly current affairs programs, interviewing national political and business leaders and celebrities, while she continued her life as a lawyer during the day. (She remains a contributor to the country’s top newspapers.)
Ashley-Ann’s first encounter with JMCC Group Chair and CEO, Diane Scott in 2018 was incidental: they met while working on a small property transaction in Jamaica. Diane is known internally for calling her top performers “Rock Stars” – and she quickly identified the defining strengths of keen analytical skills, creative problem-solving and leadership in the young lawyer. Soon after the property deal was completed, Diane asked her to join JMCC as the company’s in-house counsel and Jamaican director.
With a forward tilt to her head and a piercing gaze when she interacts one-on-one, you get the sense that she’s always listening, processing, understanding and learning. You are also left with little doubt that taking on the role of a top executive at a fast-growing global company wasn’t going to be too steep a learning curve for Ashley-Ann Foster to master.
How do you view your role at JMCC?
As the local director, I act on behalf of Diane when she is not in Jamaica. Having the ultimate Jamaican responsibility is a big job. Also, as in-house counsel, I’m responsible for all things legal and compliance-related on regulatory matters, particularly those pertaining to Jamaica’s Cannabis Licencing Authority. For example, managing the processes and paperwork involved in getting licences can be stringent and demanding. But I think they should be in an industry like this.
How did your previous roles prepare you for this current one?
Each, in its own way, have given me a very deep understanding of the social, political and commercial landscapes a company like this has to negotiate. Those earlier roles also enabled me to connect with a broader range of Jamaicans than would likely have happened if I’d remained working as a commercial lawyer. Today, as a member of JMCC’s leadership team, I bring understanding of the workings of government, the country, the law and the media, as well as the needs and aspirations of hard-working people like our employees.
This role has enabled me to learn, at first hand, about the economic and social impacts, and the potential benefits that a successful, well-regulated medical cannabis industry can have for our national economy and social growth.
Some have observed that they have days when it feels like it’s been one step forward and two steps back, as the industry here develops. How do you keep motivated and engaged?
I keep motivated by remembering it’s not about me. It’s about delivering to patients around the world a world-class medical product. And, when we do that, at JMCC, it comes with a sense of national pride for our team here in Jamaica. We can do this!
But the medical cannabis industry is forging ahead – in more than 40 countries worldwide now. In Jamaica, we’ve got to become smarter and faster to become a real global player.
JMCC is building a rather unique organizational culture. How important is that to its success?
It starts with a deep understanding that JMCC’s medical cannabis products are going to be used by patients – people who are sick, who have compromised immune systems, who may be in palliative care. And our products can alleviate their symptoms, make them feel better, and improve their quality of life.
And that is why it’s so important that we think through every step in our entire supply chain and determine what needs to happen to ensure that the product is of the highest quality. And then start again and think about how we can do it better.
Has the Covid-19 pandemic changed you? Or JMCC?
The pandemic has really tested our corporate and individual resilience at a time when the company is still growing, as is the industry here. I think we have handled it very well. We were “Zoomers” as an international management team before this, so we’ve just broadened this to include more of our front-line staff. And, as a result, we’ve become more effective at executing virtually.
I also think we’ve become a closer-knitted team due to the fact that we must now rely upon each other more in order to get things done. Our accountability systems have been tightened too. In some ways, it’s forced us to mature as an organization faster than most five-year old companies, I think.
And, I’m really proud of the fact that JMCC kept all of its employees on payroll throughout, working from home when possible, and really taking care of the essential workers on our team when they had to be on-site. Those kinds of actions speak louder than words.
What convinced you that that the medical cannabis business is the real deal?
In some ways, it’s like any other product, a commodity that is in growing demand globally. You also have to watch the industry in each country and the success markers overall. We’ve looked at other countries and their comparable advantages, and we still like our return-on-investment prospects in Jamaica. In addition, here, our heart and soul are in it. At JMCC, our job is to take Jamaica to the world – and that, to me, is a really big deal.
How do you “weed out” the noise about the industry and remain focused on what is really relevant?
I love that JMCC has a level of stick-to-it-iveness in terms of having made a commitment to Jamaica, unlike other companies that have pulled out for various reasons. Jamaica is still learning about itself in the context of the global medical cannabis landscape. But JMCC has held firm because it believes in the country and its people and believes we can make a world-class medical product here.
What are your most significant takeaways since joining JMCC?
Professionally, it has broadened my network around the world. I’ve also been exposed to a different type of intellectual rigour and stimulation from a team that is a cut above the rest. I would not have been able to be a part of this great multinational circle if not for joining JMCC.
I’ve also realized that when you are working with a global team, you must have a deep operational understanding because commercial success is reliant upon so many factors, like production efficiency, the resiliency of your supply chain, superb communications, the thought applied to designing effective organizational structures and chains of command. So, it really is a life-changing learning experience.
In fact, I’m applying for a Professional Masters in Supply Chain Management to better equip me for my role at JMCC.
You’re an avid a gardener. Do still find time to do the things you enjoy doing outside of work?
Family and work life balance is very important to our CEO. Diane is very considerate of accommodating individual needs for all employees and she knows each of us. In fact, you’re more likely to hear about it if you don’t take time off or check in when you’re on holiday. We work hard but we sure can’t complain of being short-changed when it comes to being valued.