Vangst Talent Network

A Next-Generation Trailblazer

Karson Humiston ’15, founder of Vangst Talent Network

Deborah Dudley

What business media outlets featuring the success of 25-year-old entrepreneur Karson Humiston ’15 fail to understand is that, according to Humiston, the springboard of her start-up Vangst Talent Network, a Denver-based recruitment firm for the legal cannabis industry, began as a database of college-age contacts she developed while a student at St. Lawrence University.

To date, Humiston’s success has been chronicled by a number of outlets: She was selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, featured by Time and MSNBC, and her company was recently listed in Entrepreneur’s 100 brilliant companies list, along with Google, Amazon, and 97 other major players. Fast Company referred to Vangst as the LinkedIn of job openings in cannabis companies.

Since its launch in 2015, Vangst has placed more than 5,500 candidates, making it the No. 1 recruiting source in the cannabis industry. Recently, Vangst secured its first round of outside funding, a $2.5 million dollar seed investment led by venture capital firm Lerer Hippeau. This is a remarkable accomplishment not only because Humiston is leading a business related to cannabis, but she is also among only 2.2 percent of women-led companies in the United States that successfully raised venture capital investment this year.

It was only five years ago, during her sophomore year, after returning from a travel course in comparative politics in London as part of her government major, that Humiston began On Track Adventures, a small venture that sold students weekend getaway packages to local destinations like Lake Placid, New York.

“I saw how companies in Europe had travel excursions that students could pay for during semesters abroad,” says Humiston, and she decided to establish a similar model when she returned to campus. 

“I would go from sorority to sorority and say, ‘Hey, we are doing a Lake Placid weekend’ and sell tickets for the trip,” explains Humiston. “I collected a lot of student names and started a database and eventually I expanded to other schools.

“I think a lot of faculty at St. Lawrence thought I was very distracted,” she adds, “because in some of my classes, I was more focused on running my travel business than what was going on in class.”

Complementing her entrepreneurial ambitions was her junior-year semester abroad in Denmark. After petitioning St. Lawrence to allow her to participate in the entrepreneurial track in Copenhagen, Humiston’s semester culminated in a business design competition final presentation in Dublin.

“I ended up getting third place,” she says. “What I pitched didn’t really work out, but the process of going through creating a business plan, budgets, figuring out staffing, and projecting revenue was an incredible experience.”

When Humiston surveyed her own homegrown database of student contacts from her On Track Adventures business, she found that 75 percent of students rated careers in the cannabis industry as the area of highest interest. However, it was in the spring of her senior year when she attended a cannabis industry trade show in New York that her eyes were open to the enormous scope of employment needs in this emerging market. Humiston was convinced that she had a unique opportunity to bridge young graduates to new careers.

She didn’t waste any time, printing up business cards for her hours-old recruitment service to distribute to vendors at the trade show on the second day, cold-calling companies during finals week, and relocating to a Denver hotel room two weeks after graduation to see if she could secure her first client. By July 2015, two months after her graduation from St. Lawrence, she had filled her first position for O.pen Vape, finding the company an accounting intern from contacts in her On Track Adventures database, and Humiston was in the door.

Today, Vangst has 65 full-time employees and another 200 part-time seasonal workers. The business model has expanded to a three-pronged approach: direct hire, temporary employment services, and an online job board, vangsters.com, to link employers with potential talent in all areas. So far, Vangst, a word taken from Humiston’s Dutch heritage meaning catch, has managed to keep pace with the employment demands of the industry.

The Skeptics

It does not surprise Humiston that the politics of her business are often front and center when talking with people outside of the industry. Even Humiston’s parents had some reservations. She says it was a challenge telling them she was moving to Colorado to start a business in the cannabis industry after graduation.

“Of course, they were supportive, but it was hard for them,” says Humiston, the Buffalo native whose father is a small business owner and mother is an attorney. “Not all parents are going to be excited about their kid going off and starting up a ‘weed business’ right after college.

“People don’t realize that this is one of the most highly regulated industries in the nation. Companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in developing their operations,” says Humiston. “This is not just someone’s hobby; these are real businesses, generating significant revenue, and real tax dollars for their state economies.”

According a 2017 MarketWatch report, the industry is projected to be worth $50 billion annually by 2026 and the Colorado State Department of Revenue recorded $1.5 billion in sales for 2017, generating close to $300 million in tax revenue for the state. Forty-three states now have some form of either recreational or medical legalized marijuana, and despite some contradictory statements from current federal agencies, Humiston feels it is just a matter of time before the industry is normalized. Jobs include everything from botanists to retail managers, accountants to human resource professionals, which, according to Humiston, means that people are “keeping their careers, but changing industries.”

To ensure that Vangst has a good foothold in the industry, the company hosted a cannabis career summit in Denver in 2016 and is planning to do more. With new investment capital, Humiston plans to enhance the company’s online capabilities and expand opportunities for more young professionals, which is what has inspired her all along. 

“People think it is all about the money,” Humiston says, “but actually I am really inspired by being able to change a lot of people’s lives and give them opportunities. People remember getting a new job. It is one of those times in people’s lives when they are nervous and excited. Being a part of helping people find those jobs and careers means a lot to me.”

Karson Humiston '15, founder of Vangst Talent Network