I Grew My Business During the Pandemic, and Now I’m Going on Sabbatical

January 6, 2022

*Photo by Jamie Cardenas

Covid sucks. If I had to summarize the past two years of the pandemic symbolically I would say that 2020 was a sour ass lemon so I made lemonade. In 2021 I tried to franchise my lemonade stand to survive, only to realize I don’t really like lemonade. Go figure.

But what happens when #1: You scale your lemonade stand too fast, and #2: The global pandemic that you thought was going to end doesn’t, and in fact keeps going stronger than ever? Well that is the perfect formula for burnout. And that’s exactly why I’m going on sabbatical.

In 2021, I started out with super high hopes. We hosted a planning retreat in January with our 3 full time employees, mapped out the year including wellness perks and quarterly retreat & debrief days to stay sane and connected, despite working fully virtually, and were optimistic about the world opening back up once vaccinations rolled out. As a CEO, I felt juiced about the team we had in place, and the potential of what opportunities lay ahead once the events industry opened back up. I knew we were ahead of the curve and fully ready for hybrid events, and we survived 2020 and even grew the team so I felt super optimistic. I had launched our first Women of Color SISternship (read: internship), we had new project management processes in place, I was constantly creating (and re-creating) new event offerings with our production partner AddVirtual, and we had a strong team of creatives behind us (graphic designers, videographers, producers, vendors, marketers — all POC led) to the point that we were operating like a full on agency.

2020 was a sour ass lemon so I made lemonade. In 2021 I tried to franchise my lemonade stand to survive, only to realize I don’t really like lemonade.

I also knew that I was finally ready to manifest the BIGGEST goal of Make it Mariko – to finally open, own, and operate our own event center & retreat space! I had been searching for real estate since 2018, with a few properties sticking out here and there. Not until we had a solid team in place in 2021 did I feel like we were going to be ready to open this new venue and make it real though. So with all the right things in place, I started searching seriously for real estate with my realtor. Long story short, after 6 months of work, research, business planning, $700K+ raised from all women of color investors, and multiple multi-million dollar offers & negotiations, I walked away from the deal. I won’t go too much into it because I already wrote a full blog about it here.

The deal fell through around June 2021, around the same time of California’s much anticipated “Opening day”, when we also hosted our first big in-person event since the pandemic. The event came at the perfect time to bring some much needed JOY into my life since I was so depressed and grieving after losing the venue deal. After only a few weeks of reopening though, things closed back up again due to Covid surges with the Delta variant. All our Fall/Winter events which were supposed to be Hybrid, started canceling and pivoting back to Virtual. It felt like deja vu, and it was a crushing blow to my optimism. 

As a social extrovert who gets energy and joy from being around people, the pandemic has been really tough on me, as I know it has for everyone. Before the pandemic, I was pretty flexible on my team working from home, but we did co-working two days a week from our office in SoMa, since working together is a key part of collaboration and team building for me. And even though we were really successful at pivoting to virtual events and making an actual business out of virtual (Make it Mariko is #1 in organic SEO when you Google search for ‘San Francisco virtual event planner’), I quickly realized I wasn’t happy. You can be really good at something, and not enjoy it at the same time. That was me with virtual events. I enjoyed virtual in 2020 because it was all we had – there were no other options, it was a challenge (I love me a good innovation challenge), and I found purpose helping my clients during such a time of uncertainty. It also gave me something to distract myself from the dooming dread of the pandemic and the loneliness I felt from quarantine. But in 2021, I became resentful. I didn’t get into the events industry to produce events online or behind masks. I desperately wanted to see people, to hug them, to smile with them, and to vibe off of each other’s shared energy to feel that joy. I needed to create those magical, meaningful moments, and the online space just wasn’t cutting it for me.

You can be really good at something, and not enjoy it at the same time.

At some point mid-year at the peak of our season, I realized that I had scaled the business, but that I had created a life and schedule for myself that mirrored a “busy tech CEO” like those I used to support when I worked at Google — back to back meetings from 9-5, then 5+ more hours of work after that to just barely make it through my checklist for the day. I was working 10-14 hours a day and was a slave to my calendar and to Slack (Sidenote: I HATE Slack and when I come back I’m not going to use it for my company. It makes you too connected, and it’s too easy to ask quick questions and get quick answers, which I think discourages people from learning how to figure stuff out on their own and actually talk to each other.) My email was constantly at 200+ unread daily, and things were feeling out of control. I was a control freak who had lost control, and it was so frightening.

I started snapping at my husband and was constantly crying and having panic attacks. At some point I became depressed and it was hard for me to get out of bed, look at my email inbox, and to even find motivation to eat 🙁 Thankfully our scale allowed me to hire an Executive Assistant to help me with all the things, but that also added more pressure to make more money to pay yet another salary, especially since I gave everyone raises mid-year to reflect the new level of Project Management work they were taking on. 

All of this on top of the fact that we were STILL in a global pandemic, we still weren’t able to see each other, I still wasn’t able to DANCE (my happy place), and I was so stressed. Additionally, I was still taking on a ton of pro bono community work, while also running my own nonprofit where I managed a team of 30+ volunteers & staff. There was also a lot of pressure from people in the community who saw me as a leader and had a lot of expectations about how I should lead/decolonize/hold space. It’s ironic how perfectionism can be triggering and harmful on both sides of the spectrum – from capitalism expecting you to be perfect, and also progressive idealism that wants you to be an ideal kind of activist.

Over time, I started to realize just how much work that I was doing for free, the expectations that came with it, and how my balance sheet was suffering because of it (Make it Mariko donated $72K in in-kind event planning services & cash donations for nonprofits and the community in 2021). I was grateful and humbled to do the work of course otherwise I wouldn’t have agreed, but all of this made me start becoming resentful of my community work. This only added to my feelings of scarcity & survival mentality, and the dread of making payroll during a time when much of the events industry was STILL closed.

At some point, I broke. I remember the day when I snapped, told my EA to cancel all my meetings for the day, and all I did was lay in bed and cry uncontrollably to whoever would listen. And listen they did. I’m so endlessly grateful to the amazing women and peers in my life and the Pinayista community who took time in those next few weeks to listen to me, take walks on the beach, let me crash dinners and cry, all to help me realize that I NEEDED & DESERVED REST. 

They helped me realize that I am more than a busy calendar.
That I am more than a hyper efficient human.
That I can find joy in more than just being productive.

It was then that I knew that I needed to go on sabbatical. The problem was, it was only September and we still had a PACKED Winter schedule of events to make it through :/ Thankfully with the help of therapy, a new business coach, my team, and my community I was able to make the hard decision to choose MYSELF. It’s crazy that it was such a hard decision though, because honestly, it took A LOT of deep talks and support to get me to accept the fact that I deserved to take a break. If I hadn’t been burned so bad, I probably would’ve just tried to push through and keep going. But here I am in 2022, I made it through the year and I’m finally ready to take a break. For the first time in my life, I’m going to learn how to REST. How to discover a new way of being Gina Mariko other than productivity & efficiency. And how to find JOY in the slowness.

“To take a new journey, one must begin by leaving.” – Anonymous

I know I made a lot of mistakes last year. We were also really successful. And I’m so thankful for all the growth, learnings, and opportunities to be called IN to do better. In Tarot, the six cards represent departure and a journey towards harmony. Ironically on this 6-Year Anniversary of Make it Mariko and my 36th rotation around the sun, it’s finally time for me to focus on my own harmony, rest, and wholeness. To take a break from focusing on caring for others, and focus on taking care of MYSELF.

So here I am, finally drawing a hard line in the sand and I’m going to stop. For how long? I have no idea. I prefer to keep things open ended and let the universe (or my bank account/mortgage) tell me when to come back. Financially it’s going to be tough. But I know how to hustle and I know how to make money, and I’m also not too proud to go on unemployment if I need to (because we literally PAY IN to the government for these benefits, so we deserve to use these benefits when we need them). I’m also being strategic and passing on all my clients to trusted event planners & producers in my circle, and taking some nice referral bonuses if they sign. Hopefully that will tide me over for a bit, as well as bring some new work to the beautiful creatives in my life. The real challenge for me is going to be learning how to REST. Because I really don’t know how to stop. But I’m committed to trying.

For now, I have no “official plans” but I do have many hopes:

  • I hope to learn how to rest.
  • I hope to find peace in emptiness.
  • I hope to dance.
  • I hope to create things, for the sake of creating.
  • I hope to enjoy my city which I love and hardly get to explore, San Francisco.
  • I hope to make decisions out of abundance, and not out of money, scarcity, or fear.
  • I hope to learn about wine and wine making, so that I can see if having a winery/wine label is something I can incorporate into my future event space.
  • I hope to travel to Japan (for Cherry Blossom Festival), Portugal (for the wine harvest), and New Orleans (for Jazzfest), if travel restrictions and budget allows.
  • I hope to make time for my husband, who deserves the best of me, not the worst.
  • I hope to spend time with my new baby nephew Aki, whom I love so dearly with all my heart already.

And most of all I hope for JOY, health, and sanity, and to a safe end to this whole fucking pandemic. For all of us.

I love you all. See you on the other side, or hopefully just at karaoke 😉

<3 Gina Mariko

P.S. Make it Mariko will be accepting inquiries for events & brand activations that take place no sooner than May 2022, but we’ll be a bit slower to respond, obviously 🙂

P.P.S. I’m sure a few people are wondering what it looks like LOGISTICALLY to go on sabbatical when you own your own business. Here’s how I’m doing it. This is just one way:

  • I gave our team 3 months notice that I was going to do this, so they had plenty of time to figure out new job situations.
  • I laid everyone off, including myself, since I was paying myself as a W2 employee (Make it Mariko is an S-Corp).
  • I gave everyone severance pay, even though it was financially tough to do so after such a rough year, because it’s the right thing to do.
  • I’m not closing the business, just taking a break, so I’m putting up auto-responders for the next few months on email and my website with instructions about who my referrals are for events while I’m out.
  • I negotiated with my referrals that if anyone books with them that I send over, I will get a referral bonus which is a nice way to get some extra cash while you’re on break.
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