Journalism graduate Sean Cooley ’06 is doing well and doing good
He went from journalism in Chicago to being a rising marketing star in Los Angeles for the promising legal cannabis industry -- and now he's raising funds to fight cancer, honoring his late dad
To honor his father who died of lymphoma in 2010, Sean Cooley ’06 is leading a fundraising push for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of greater Los Angeles where he lives, joining about 25 other activists now in the running for his region’s Man of the Year Award for the Society.
Cooley, who spent years as a successful journalist in the Chicago area before moving with his wife to Los Angeles to seek new opportunities, says he cut his story-telling teeth with the Saint Michael’s student newspaper The Defender as a top editor and reporter for several years, and the skills he learned continue to pay off, whatever his job.
“Ultimately whether in editorial or more of a marketing job as I have now, it’s knowing how to drive on a deadline and ultimately, knowing how to tell a great story — that’s what it boils down to,” he said.
When his late dad was sick from lymphoma, a form of cancer of the lymphatic system, Cooley said, medical marijuana was “a Godsend” as an important source of relief. Today, in what sometimes feels to him like a cosmic convergence because of that connection, Cooley is making a name for himself as a (legal) cannabis entrepreneur, all while concurrently undertaking his all-in push-in to help fight cancer through the Society.
“For anyone who has had this disease touch their life, they know it’s all-consuming, and it is difficult to be fore-facing about it in the moment — but now I’m 10 years removed from it and I always wanted to do something to honor my father, so this seems perfect –an opportunity to raise money for a great cause,” he said of his present cancer-fighting campaign.
In recent months, Cooley became head of content marketing at the largest cannabis delivery company in California called Grass Door. Last year he was part of a team under a co-worker and friend that raised more than $200,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society cause, far exceeding their goal, “and I just got really excited, so my friend Jeff nominated me in kind for this year – he took my drive that he’d seen into consideration, and knew I wanted to be part of leadership for this cause.”
The challenge is daunting, Cooley said — what he describes as “a 10-week grind” that started in earnest for him early in April. “It’s hectic and crazy, but good,” he said. Cooley describes his initiatives as “a little bit free-form,” so his journalism experience helps a lot in adapting on the fly with communications since the fundraising involves “a lot of digital outreach, personalized emails, partner and sponsorship outreach to organizations I’ve worked with.” A recent example of the activities he arranges to raise funds was the auctioning off a lunch with one of the celebrities so present in the LA area – in this recent case, the creator of the show Everybody Loves Raymond. Cooley said his fundraising team this year is made up of 10 people. Here is the link to a page about the effort.
Cooley said his Saint Michael’s education “foundationally set me up for success in this digital marketing sector that I work in now.” He recalled the payoff of taking chances for his early journalism work, going back to St. Mike’s days — such as driving to a Montreal Expos game on a lark and ending up meeting players, interviewing Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and doing a radio piece for Vermont Public Radio.
Not being afraid to take risks on his career path has led organically from one opportunity to the next. “I’m in my second month at Grass Door, and it’s exciting to be in a delivery service within the cannabis brand,” said Cooley, noting that in the pandemic, delivery and on-demand orders have been more essential than ever to both his medical-marijuana and other more recreational legal customers, who were less able to just go to a dispensary “to source the product” than before the pandemic.
Cooley said his writing and story-telling ability “are skills I bring every step of the way on this long winding road that I’ve had since graduation from St. Mike’s.” For several years after graduation, he was a freelance photographer and writer in the Burlington area, then became a new media editor for the St. Albans Messenger. “I really developed in those roles and liked incubating and practicing a lot of the journalistic skills I picked up as an undergraduate – from Jerry Swope with photojournalism, Traci Griffith on journalism law … and then Paul Beique was a huge inspiration on the Defender with the rudiments of newspaper journalism,” he said about current or former influential St. Mike’s journalism faculty for him.
In about 2000, fortified by those early experiences, Cooley went off to journalism graduate school at prestigious Northwestern University outside Chicago, since he wanted to try his hand in a large media market; he eventually worked at the Chicago Tribune, and was the city editor for the website Thrillist, specializing in food, drink, travel and entertainment – in fact, he’s still an occasional contributor to Thrillist now from LA.
Cooley grew up in Meriden, CT, and attended Saint Michael’s with the help of the “Nutmeg Scholarship” for students from that state. “I’m definitely a jack of all trades, and I’ve had to wear so many hats in my career in journalism and as a marketer to survive – particularly in pandemic times when you have to be able to pivot.” Liberal arts education prepares a person to do that, he believes.
About eight years ago, he and his wife tired of Chicago winters – they’d met doing improvisational theater in the windy city – so, as a “walk-off honeymoon,” they moved to Los Angeles with no specific plans. “We wanted to change things up, and I wound up being recruited for an editorship at High Times magazine based on my success at Thrillist, so that was my first time dipping my toes into cannabis on a professional level,” he said
That time with the decades-old and well-established High Times was a great education, he said — such as when the “cultivation editor” took him along on a trip to Amsterdam to cover an event there. “I took in as much knowledge as I could – it was irreplaceable education and experience,” Cooley said.
From there, he said, “cannabis has been a lightning rod for me professionally since there are so few seasoned professional storytellers in the industry who have empirical knowledge of the plant and are driven to learn more, as I am, and are willing to make the jump without worrying about the stigma.” Cooley’s job stops in the industry since High Times has included a tech company called Weed Maps that he helped establish and time with an American cannabis company based in Colorado that led to his job at Grass Door.
His earlier work has been featured on The Onion, Clickhole, Funny or Die and Huffington Post in addition to High Times, and Thrillist. His solo work includes standup at Zanies, solo sketch at UCB and iO West, and storytelling at The Moth Grandslam.
“I’d taken some business and marketing classes at St. Mike’s so I knew how to create a business plan – again, it speaks to the merits of a liberal arts education, never knowing the hallway you might walk down,” he said, “so I continually find value in having taken well-rounded academics.”
Cooley said he always “had poo-pooed marketing when I was in journalism, but it’s different when you are marketing something you believe in, as I am now.” His current LinkedIn profile describes him now as a “data-driven content marketing director/highly specialized in cannabis/CBD/lifestyle brands.”
Cooley now feels committed to working in cannabis for the near and likely distant future — and just as committed to fighting lymphoma and leukemia this year and striving to be the top fund-raiser among his fellow nominees. As the website for the Society’s Man & Woman of the Year campaign states, “while each candidate has a very personal reason for participating in this 10-week fundraising campaign, they all share a passion for reaching the day when cancer is 100 percent curable.”