Gina Mariko Rosales spent seven years planning events at Google before she decided to set out and start her own company. In 2016, she launched the San Francisco-based Make it Mariko, producing corporate and nonprofit events and festivals for big-name clients like The Trevor Project, NPR, and Figma.
Rosales started the company after a series of family losses to help people honor and celebrate the “magical, meaningful moments in our lives.”
“I had a cousin who died by suicide, and an uncle who we lost to leukemia,” she explains. “It was losing these family members and going through this tragic experience with my family that really caused me to rethink my life and my purpose, knowing that every day is a blessing that we’re alive.”
Hello Alice spoke with Rosales to discuss the state of the events industry since COVID, how she grew her company during the pandemic, and why finding partnerships has been crucial to the survival of her business.
How did you get into event planning?
My first event was when I ran a nonprofit dance company Funkanometry SF. I used to plan all of their weekly workshops and community classes. That’s where I also produced my first large-scale event, which was a huge community dance event in one of the biggest venues in San Francisco. I started doing dance productions and then moved into nonprofit events. Then, I started working at Google and ended up working there for seven years, running marketing events as the head of marketing events at Google X.
Was there anything that you learned from Funkanometry SF and Google that you brought over to your company?
I learned so much from every industry. Through dance, I learned about the power of music and movement, curation, and energy. Through nonprofits, I learned about community building, fundraising, and strategy. And at Google, I learned about innovation and asking critical questions about how to create new experiences.
With Make it Mariko, I took all of those things and put them into one company. Yes, we do corporate events. Yes, we do nonprofit events. But whenever we’re doing these events, we also approach them from a social justice lens. We approach them from a diversity lens and accessibility lens. All of the things I was learning in the nonprofit industry I put into my corporate events.
What was the process like building your team?
It’s the craziest part of it all because I started my company just with one “me.” Now that I started planning festivals and larger-scale events, I definitely needed to grow a team. What’s been crazy about COVID is we saw so much of the live events industry decimated and going out of business. But with my experience at Google, I know about pivoting and changing direction, so I was able to pivot really fast to virtual and use my technology skills.
I actually saw my business thrive. I went from losing 87% of my income to then, in a few months, getting that back and even started growing our team. KKR Small Business Builders also helped me continue that growth because with this grant, I’m able to get strategic consulting to help me scale our business and be able to hire more people. Part of our values at Make it Mariko is to diversify the events industry, so all of our team are mostly women of color, and we work with people of color in all of our vendors.
How did you make that quick pivot and grow your company during COVID?
To be honest, in the beginning, when everything shut down, I was just sad. There was a full two-weeks where I didn’t do anything, and we were just trying to figure it out. And I just had to mourn a little bit. I was supposed to have the biggest event year of my life, and it just disappeared. But I’m not the type to just sit around. I’m always like, alright, two weeks is done, done being sad.
We really focused our energy and went out there and did all the demos for every virtual platform that we could find. We started applying for as many grants as we could find. I put my entire team on grant research and virtual event platform research. Once we got into these platforms, we just started trying to get creative again. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we do all the things we love about in-person online?’
What advice would you give to owners in the events industry recovering from the pandemic?
One of the things that was critical to us being successful is to find your key partners. I partnered very quickly with my friend who is also in the live events industry. He was my A/V partner for live events. He was instrumental in our pivot because he became our digital production company. Everything that we did, we did in partnership with each other. I would not have been able to do it without him.
I recommend finding a critical partner who has the skills that you don’t have, and work together to create something big. With both of us promoting together, we were able to get more work for each other’s company.
What kind of support do you think is needed in the event industry right now?
Funding is critical. Many venues are closing, and they’re going to be really critical for the culture building. If we have no venues to go back to, it’s going to be so detrimental. I think all of this funding going towards feeding historic and cultural venues is so important. I’d love to see more funding going towards helping venues.
I think also funding for equipment for people of color in the events industry to go virtual is also really important. I’m thankful that I had some money and savings that we could invest into more computers, cameras, and lighting that we needed to create virtual events, but not a lot of people do. Being able to have the money for a new computer that you need to stream, or a podcast mic, or lighting for your live stream — all of those things would be really helpful to people of color to give them access.
You also started an entrepreneurial community called Pinayista. Could you tell us more about that?
When I started my company, I did not have a lot of women of color entrepreneurs to look up to. I knew maybe two or three other Filipino women who owned businesses. And I didn’t see myself in the events industry. When I was going to industry parties, I was one of the only women of color there, so it was really hard for me.
I started Pinayista because I wanted to meet more Filipino entrepreneurs. I helped found a Filipino night market in San Francisco. When I started the night market, we found all of these new entrepreneurs, and I would introduce myself and just be like, ‘Can we be friends? Can we hang out? Can we be there to support each other?’ That’s what also inspired me to start the Pinayista Summit because I just wanted to bring together all of the Filipino entrepreneurs so that we can have a community and that they wouldn’t have to feel alone the way that I did when I started my business.
What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve ever learned so far as an owner?
I think I’m in the process of learning it right now — the ability to let go and build a team that’s going to support you and really trust the team to hold you down. I was one of those entrepreneurs that was like, ‘My success is all happening because I’m putting in the work, and I’m doing everything.’ It was really hard for me to let go and have trust in other people that they would hold the brand to the same standard that I would have as a founder.
But the past year with COVID and scaling my business has forced me to have trust and faith in my team. And I’ve learned to be open and transparent as an owner. Now, we’re at the place where they are holding it down, which is giving me time and space to think about new ideas and new businesses that are even bigger than I could have ever imagined or done on my own. Giving trust in other people frees you up to think bigger for the rest of your community.
Speaking of new ideas and businesses, what are your future goals and plans for your company?
That’s the really exciting part about scaling my business and bringing on a team to support me. I’m actually in the process of trying to launch another company. I love planning events, but my goal has always been to own and operate my own venue and community space. Right now, I’m mapping a 25-acre land that I’m going to turn into an event space, retreat center, and farm. It’ll be like an oasis for people in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and big cities to find some peace, host events, and be in a creative space.
For the first time in my life, I’m raising money. I’ve been pitching to investors over the past month. I raised close to a million dollars to make it happen. The beautiful thing is it’s going to be an all women of color investment team. So I’m starting to bring those values with me, and I want to bring other women of color up with me so we can come together. I wouldn’t be able to afford this land by myself. But if we come together and pitch in our money, then we can afford it together.