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Omaha Magazine

Chasing the CBD Startup Dream in Omaha: Gunhee Park’s New Industry

Sep 28, 2020 01:11PM ● By Chris Bowling
Gunhee Park of Populum, outside Hardy Coffee

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Gunhee Park had experienced enough of corporate life. He earned a good paycheck, married his sweetheart, and by all accounts was ready to settle into a comfortable life. Three years in, however, he got tired of the minutiae of being a small cog in a big machine.

“I realized if I was ‘stuck’ here for a long time, I’d only become more jaded and demotivated,” Park said. “So if I was going to try to start a business on my own I realized this was the time to do it.”

Park hasn’t followed the typical path in life. The 29-year-old recalled his first bus ride to Mount Michael Benedictine High School in 2006, when he marveled at how different the farmland of Elkhorn looked compared to the then-15-year-old’s metropolitan home of Bundang, South Korea, near Seoul. Then came college at Arizona State University, where he majored in supply chain management and computer information systems. Along the way, he interned with giants like Goldman Sachs and small startups.

When he landed a corporate job in the supply chain division of Dell in Austin, Texas, he knew his journey hadn’t ended.

“I was always trying to do something outside the norm,” he said. “That entrepreneurial spirit was still there.”

Park now runs Populum, a boutique online CBD retailer. The company, founded in 2016 with a Latin name that translates to “the people,” promises quality, transparency, and a streamlined connection from hemp farmers to products like supplements, lotions, and pet treats. Park runs the retailer out of Omaha with a handful of employees while the other half of the eight-person team handles operations and sales in Arizona.

Park found CBD, or Cannabidiol, the nonpsychoactive substance found in marijuana and derived from hemp, in 2016, when it became more visible due to the U.S. relaxing its regulations.  Around that same time, his mother (who still lives in South Korea) began alleviating a chronic pain in her elbow with a CBD lotion.

When Park went online to examine the market, he found a huge gap between producers and consumers, saying, “When it came to information about CBD there were so many exaggerated claims…if you do a quick search there’s so many exaggerated claims. Like ‘Oh, CBD can help with cancer, with Alzheimer’s,’ all these things.

“CBD itself is a beneficial supplement, but it’s getting a bad rap,” Park continued. “Because for a long time it was just considered snake oil. The reason being, there’s not a lot of...brands that are [being] transparent with their customers.”

Park focuses on buying hemp directly from Colorado farmers and having it delivered directly to a lab to be processed and tested for quality. 

The focus on ethics as well as creative marketing tactics resulted in a growth from $500,000 in sales in 2017 to almost $2 million in 2019. 

With COVID-19, Park’s company has been spared the economic hardship most small business owners have experienced; but e-commerce isn’t shielded from the effects of lower spending or supply chain interruptions.

Caitlin March, who joined Populum in Omaha as its director of marketing last year, said she feels confident about the future with Park at the helm.

“He definitely has it together,” she said. “Me working for a startup, I felt confident joining Populum because Gunhee’s insanely smart, super-driven, and knows how to manage a business.”

Running a company with suppliers, employees, and customers across the nation hasn’t been easy. Selling a product that the country itself is socially and legally adapting to has its challenges too. But Park said that’s what he likes about it.

“It’s definitely a love and hate relationship running your own business,” he said. “Some days you feel like nothing’s worth it. There’s a lot more responsibility and paranoia running your own business. But with [a job back at a corporation], I don’t think I would have gained the experience or satisfaction or fulfillment.”

“My paychecks would have been a lot better, but the experience isn’t really something you can exchange.”

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This article was printed in the October/November 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.