Deborah Custer has a not-so-secret weapon for charming customers when they visit the Innovation Mill in Vinton, Virginia. It’s her shih tzu, the iconic puppy behind the name of Custer’s passion project, Oliver’s PetCalm, an anti-anxiety spray made from cannabidiol oil.

Custer, who serves as director of the Innovation Mill, an incubator for small businesses in emerging high-growth industries, maintains her own business in the building’s storefront. It is here—at the Hemp Mill—that Oliver welcomes visitors to the space. But he is more than a greeter; he’s also a symbol of the legacy that led Custer to become interested in hemp.

Fifteen years ago, Custer was traveling in Greece when she received the news that Oliver’s predecessor, a Great Dane, had debilitating arthritis. The prognosis was bleak, and the veterinarian recommended euthanasia. But then a Greek herbalist gave her a small vial of a special oil.

“Once home, I added the oil to my dog’s food,” Custer says. “Within two days, she went from being incontinent and immobile to walking on her own again.”

Custer later learned the seemingly magical formula was a hemp oil extraction. With regular doses, her dog lived a full and happy life for three more years.

Thrilled with these results, Custer decided to learn more about hemp. “I used dried hemp leaves to make a tea that would relax me and ease my headaches,” she says. “I thought, this plant is remarkable.”

Since then, she has become an entrepreneur and an advocate for the hemp industry. She also founded Coeus Research, which focuses on plant-based product manufacturing, design, development, and branding.

She grows two types of plants. One is for fiber and grain, used for clothing and edible merchandise, such as hemp’d coffee and hemp protein. The other plant is for cannabidiol products, which include lotions, deodorants, and Oliver’s PetCalm. She developed the latter to provide relief for animals who suffer from inflammation or, like the product’s mascot, from anxiety.

“Hemp is a remediator,” she says. “It pulls out and removes toxins, such as heavy metals.”

Custer’s desire to provide people with healthful products goes back to her days as a sociology major at Virginia Tech.

“I was one of those people who started college wanting to save the Earth,” she says. “Studying sociology allowed me to witness what was happening in the world in real time and to see how everything is interconnected.”

Custer graduated in 1979 and later returned to Virginia Tech for her MBA. She continues to use what she learned to connect and educate others about the use of hemp. “I was one of the first hemp growers in Virginia,” she said, “not to mention one of the first women in the industry.”

To empower and support other women in the business, she started an international nonprofit organization, Women in Hemp. Her agenda is simple.

“My goal is to create more space for plant-based medicines and better nutrition with products like hemp,” she says. “I want to grow beyond my business, to ensure that other people’s hemp products are on store shelves and in homes, where they can help both people and pets.”

Written and photographed by Leslie King