Serena Organics and the man behind the brand
As the first CBD brand to be sold in Selfridges, Serena Organics is leading the market in premium CBD products, paving the way in encouraging people to incorporate CBD into their wellness routines.
Born to Nigerian parents in the UK, Joe Alabi had always wanted to start his own business and started by selling drinks and sweets in the school playground. His career-defining moment was being rejected for a promotion when he had already been doing and excelling in the role. When he had asked his manager why he didn't get the job, he was told it wasn’t down to his competence or ability to succeed in the role, but 'preference, like why some people like Adidas and others like Nike'. It was then that Joe decided to go on a journey of building systems and organisations where people could feel like their efforts were rewarded at any and every level.
Joe founded Serena Organics with Co-Founder David Hexter after a previous stakeholder he had worked with asked him to come on board and support his international medical cannabis start-up. After experiencing the therapeutic properties of cannabidiol (CBD) first-hand and being frustrated with the poor quality of CBD products found in the UK; and the mistrust this had caused amongst consumers, Joe and David created Serena Organics not just as a trustworthy, reliable source of premium, organic CBD, but also to help the UK tackle some of its most common blocks to wellness.
Joe speaks below about his journey and personal experience as someone who has a high level ADHD. CBD helps him to manage the symptoms associated with it, especially around anxiety and stress, by helping him feel calmer throughout the day and in important moments such as big meetings.
Where did you grow up?
So I was born and grew up in Peckham. In fact, I was born in King's College Hospital, Denmark Hill. I lived there until I was in year seven, when I moved towards Plumstead. All of my family lived in Peckham - I lived there with my mom, my dad, and my two brothers and my sisters, and all my cousins lived there as well. So for me, that was really, really great, having all of my family in one place - my uncles, my auntie’s… it was just great.
What are your best early memories?
Long summer days, playing with family and friends in the park opposite the house. It was always fun and rewarding for me, because having that kind of support system of your family around you is unbeatable. I remember so clearly going to the park and playing rounders with all of my family, with lots of amazing food and drink. It just made me feel so loved, it made me feel seen, because I was also able to see people as well. It was just having that full family unit with me, not just my close family but my extended family as well. It's just something that I loved.
What was school like for you?
I didn't really enjoy school merely because I just didn't enjoy sitting in the classroom learning about things in that way. I’m much more of a practical learner, I'm more of a ‘let me see you do it and I'll do it as well’ type person, I didn't specifically enjoy sitting in a classroom and being spoken to at length. I think the only class I really enjoyed was IT, because I was doing something - it was more practical - which is something I really enjoyed. I also really enjoyed meeting my friends and playtime.
When were you first aware of your ADHD?
It wasn’t until university that I was truly aware of it, it started with an economics essay for which my lecturer questioned if I had undergone a dyslexia assessment, which I hadn't. I did, however, disclose that I had ADHD. This led me to pursue a dyslexia assessment, which revealed that I not only had dyslexia, but dyscalculia as well. Looking back, these were additional reasons why I struggled with school and felt a disconnect, regardless of how hard I tried to understand the material.
Then I went for another assessment for my ADHD, and it was then that I became very much aware of it. Previously, I had viewed it as merely a tendency to be inattentive or interrupt conversations. However, the assessor shed light on the fact that it was less of a limitation and more of a unique attribute—a superpower, even. I realised that my creativity, hands-on approach, and intense focus on specific tasks were aspects positively influenced by both ADHD and dyslexia.
This newfound awareness allowed me to perceive ADHD and its impact on me as an individual, rather than solely focusing on its limitations as I did during my school years. Although I cannot recall who initially raised the issue, I distinctly remember feeling like an outsider, as if my inability to concentrate or disruptive behaviour made me the "naughty boy” I think I just got to that point where I was already labelled. Back then, there seemed to be limited understanding or emphasis on ADHD or learning differences, which affected my overall experience.
However, as time went on, I reached a point where I no longer cared about the labels. I continued to pursue what interested me, attending specific classes, joining particular groups, and opening up to select teachers. Subconsciously, I realised that since I was already labeled, it was best to prioritise my own well-being and do what was best for me.
Did you get the support you needed during your education?
Looking back, I don't think I was 'supported' back then, it was more a box you were put into as 'unable to concentrate' or 'naughty' I think there wasn't necessarily much of an understanding as there is now in terms of these types of things. I grew up predominantly in a school that had a lot of Black students and a lot of white teachers who didn’t necessarily understand the lived experiences of Black people. So I think what could have been done differently is fully understanding the lived experiences or trying to have an element of information to help inform them a bit better of the lived experiences of individuals. So that especially with Black children, rather than being labelled naughty (which I’ve seen many times) or as someone who doesn't listen, or doesn't pay attention, acknowledging that there may be some kind of misdiagnosed or not diagnosed situation that the person is going through. Understanding how they really feel before labelling them as a naughty kid or a bad kid… I think that's definitely something that should be paid attention to in schools.
What was your first job?
My first ever job was a paper boy for a magazine company that distributed estate agent magazines in areas like Wandsworth and Clapham. I did this on weekends and school holidays.
How did that career defining moment you have talked about make you feel?
And how did you subsequently make it work for you? I was working as a recruiter, and was expecting a well earned promotion after months of filling in for a colleague on maternity leave. However, despite performing well and feeling confident after a successful interview, I didn't get the role. When I sought feedback, I was told that it was a matter of preference, similar to people preferring Adidas over Nike. In that moment, it dawned on me that sometimes it's not about what you do or your qualifications, but about who you know or personal preferences.
The person who got the job was a white individual with less experience in the role and from a different sector. This realisation hit me hard. My future was in someone else's hands, and their decision seemed to be influenced by personal preference. It became clear to me that despite my hard work and dedication, I couldn't control how others perceived me or their biases.
This defining moment prompted me to make a life-altering decision. I chose to leave and forge my own path, determined to create the future I desired. It became essential for me to take control of my life and build businesses where decisions were based on merit and effort, rather than subjective preferences or biases. I never wanted to experience a situation again where I was overlooked due to factors beyond my control. This marked a turning point in my career, motivating me to be the architect of my own life and shape it according to my aspirations and values.
What does sharing the wellness benefits of your products mean to you?
It's a sense of purpose and also an act of giving. Whatever our products represent to different people, I know they are receiving something that aids their lives in one way or another and for some of our customers, it makes a huge difference - be that relief from their chronic pain, a good night’s sleep or overall mental clarity. The value of these things is immense.
What keeps you going?
This is twofold: both the purpose of the business and also the stories we receive from our customers about how our product has helped them. The purpose behind why I wanted to start a company in the first place was that I wanted to help people and wanted to help make their lives better. That, for me, was very important. The second thing is the stories that we hear. It’s amazing for me to hear from people who we meet at events, who may have had an intense pain condition that doesn't allow them to sleep well at night, or people who have severe insomnia and through using our products have found some relief from their conditions. Or the people who have mental health conditions, and they just feel like some days, it's very, very hard to get by, or it's very, very difficult to switch off. Just hearing people say how much the products have helped them or helped their mom or spouse… for us, that’s what keeps us going - it's so rewarding. So even on the days when it feels tough, I remember some of those stories, and it helps keep me going because I realise that this is working. It's getting into the hands of people, it's making their their everyday lives that little bit better.
How have you found the process of developing brands and marketing them to retailers such Selfridges?
It's been a long but rewarding process. One can underestimate the creative and mental effort that goes into bringing a brand to life as well as the time investment involved from inception to getting in front of buyers and finally being listed.
What are your plans for yourself moving forward?
To keep growing as an individual and providing value to people's lives, both those that I come across as an individual or through the companies I work with. With Serena Organics, we are trying to bring more tangible wellness services, as well as products, to market. We currently have a full suite of products, but we're also looking forward to the time where we can actually deliver services to people in their homes, and offices too. It makes me very excited knowing what we've done already with the products and the potential for services as well.
Article By Alton Anderson