Get to know Kristine Rodriguez, a 2020 #AerieREAL Changemaker and proud Latina entrepreneur. On the way to founding and sustaining her lifestyle venture GRL Collective, the CEO has fostered a community of “grls that give a f*ck” — and consistently given back to show that she does too. Her brand donates 20 percent of its proceeds to funding the education of the girls it volunteers with yearly in Jodhpur, India, providing resources like school and medical supplies in partnership with The Sambhali Trust.
The company doesn’t stop there, however, also donating funds from various other products to benefit different social justice organizations. $5 of each of GRL Collective’s Lucha adult T-shirts go toward Black Lives Matter, while $5 of each of the respective kids tees and the brand’s Erika muñequita mug support RAICES Texas.
At the end of the day, Kristine’s unique cultural background, family history and professional pursuits have guided her throughout her entrepreneurial journey. Even when times get tough, her journey is one that has continued to blossom as she carves out her own lane for change in the world.
Kristine shares more of her story with Aerie below.
On Her Entrepreneurial Journey
What was the turning point in your career when you decided to become an entrepreneur?
I feel like it was more a decision of the universe than my own. When I came back from India the first time, I was transitioning from selling GRL Collective out of a caboodle to launching a website. The business was just starting and I knew there was no way I’d be able to make money from it quite yet. Previous to my first 40-day trip to India, I was working in the music industry for seven years. Before leaving for India I had every intention of coming back and continuing my career in music. Once I returned and decided to launch GRL Collective I also decided that part of my commitment to GRL Collective would be returning to India yearly.
After thinking critically about it and putting some feelers out there I realized that no job in all of entertainment would allow me to go back to India for 3-4 weeks every year. That was a tough pill to swallow, it felt like I had to choose between my passion and my livelihood, and I had no other choice but to choose my livelihood. I know this is a pickle so many get stuck in. Then I found a job that would allow my trips to India and pay me enough to pay my bills — a yoga studio in L.A.
Every day I questioned my decision to work there, but then I’d go to India again and remember THIS is why. They are my why, the girls in India. After two years there I realized that my value was being gone unseen by the higher ups in the company and it was quickly becoming toxic to my mental health. I feel very blessed and lucky that at that same time my husband went from freelance work to a good full-time opportunity. He could see how this job was chipping away at me, so after a long and tearful call on my drive home from work he told me “quit, I got you in the meantime.”
When he said that it felt like I had been drowning and that statement was a gasp of air. I was terrified, choosing to rely on my partner but I knew I needed to do this for myself. I quit the next day with the intention of applying for jobs and getting another full-time job while still working on GRL Collective part-time. Then, the pandemic hit and all the interviews I had lined up were cancelled and postponed. I panicked. Then I remembered, this GRL Collective community that I had built online, my husband’s support, the little faces in India that believe in me more than I will likely ever believe in me. I sat at my computer and started making a plan for the year, with no insight into what the future would hold but hope that having this time and being able to put ALL my time and energy into MY business would pay off and I am proud to say…it definitely did!
What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced during your transition into entrepreneurship as a Latina?
I think in the Latinx community entrepreneurship isn’t something that is spoken about enough, so it is still so unfamiliar. The Latinx community has a reputation for working hard and doing whatever it takes to care for our families. The concept of instability economically is scary and because in many Latinx families — including my own — we do not have economic wealth or cushion to fall back on or family members that can invest. The onus is completely on us. I think there was a lot of self-doubt in the beginning. I’m not saying it’s 100% gone now but the support that I have received definitely has me so much more confident in not only the business but also myself.
On Entrepreneurship in the Latinx Community
What are some of the economic challenges that hinder small businesses in the Latinx community?
Having the money to get started is a big one. You don’t need a lot of money to start some businesses, but you do need extra money. I grew up in a household that lived paycheck to paycheck. I was aware from a very young age about how tight money was. When I was starting this business I had to start small because I couldn’t ask my family for money. I had to make do with whatever money was left from my paycheck after paying all my bills and buying food and that didn’t allow for anything grand. I sold earrings out of a caboodle, and of course that didn’t have anyone thinking that GRL Collective was the next big thing, which led me to think that I would always have to do this all on my own.
What investor was ever going to believe this girl selling handmade earrings and then donating a portion of that very little money was ever going to make enough money for any investment to make sense? Probably none. I also think investors see us as niche or trendy. I think that other brands and corporations see us that way as well, which makes it really hard for us to grow to a scalable amount. What they fail to realize is that there is tremendous buying power in the Latinx community, and investing in businesses that will help an entire community build generational wealth and capital is only going to help everyone in the long run.
What advice do you have for people on where they can begin the process if they want to be an entrepreneur?
Within. I know that probably sounds super cheesy but it’s true. Think about the things that you’re passionate about and write them down, they may change with time and that’s okay but notice the trend over time. You don’t want to run a business you’re going to hate one day. You want the core of it to be what drives you, because on the hard days, you need to have that to go back to. Also, Google will be your best friend. Google everything before you ask someone for advice. Do research on people that inspire you, listen, read and study what and how they did things. Know a little bit about a lot of things, and when you’re ready to build a team collaborate and hire people who are good at things that you aren’t.
How did you learn the hard skills to start a business and figure out how to get funding/build a brand in general?
I pulled a lot of my hard skills from all my past job experiences. I used to joke that my resume was embarrassing because I had so many jobs, but now I realize it was all for a reason. When I worked in music, I learned how to promote artists, shows, merch, songs — now I just had to focus on using those skills to promote a brand, pop ups, new designs and fundraisers. I ran social media for a few of the artists I managed so I took the learnings from that to build an engaged community on Instagram. The music industry also taught me how to build and maintain meaningful relationships, which has helped me tremendously as a business owner…Building and maintaining relationships within a small community of other Latina owned brands has helped to fill in all the gaps!
As far as funding, I have a friend Maddy whom I met while working at the yoga studio who believed in GRL Collective very early on and made a small but impactful investment so that I could actually continue with the business. I didn’t have enough money to order inventory or do a photoshoot and she stepped in to save us in 2019. My biggest investment was the grant I received from Aerie and it came at a time when the business was growing exponentially and I needed to invest in inventory in order to keep up with demand, so thank you! It’s truly been a life saver for us! In order for us to continue creating change, we have to [be able to] keep our doors open.
On GRL Collective
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration along the way to becoming an entrepreneur?
My little sisters. My sister Erika Marie passed away when she was 13 and I was 17. She had a rare chromosomal defect known as Trisomy 18. She was a miracle and lived for 13 years even though doctors only expected she’d live 6 months to 1 year. My empathy and compassion come from being her big sister. I saw the way strangers would sometimes look at her, and I remember I would get so upset. My mom would always tell me that these people didn’t see kids like Erika often and that it was our job to have sympathy for them because they simply did not know and that was okay. We could show them how special Erika was.
I knew from a young age that I was lucky to be born in a healthy and able body, that my sister would’ve given anything to have the same privileges that I did. To be able to walk, to run or tell my Mom she loved her. When she passed away in 2006, I knew that even though it felt like a piece of my heart had left, I had to live a life FULL of meaning for her. The first time I went to India and I met the 50 little sets of eyes that changed my life I saw her. I saw my sister Erika in each of their big beautiful brown eyes and I knew that we were linked forever and that I would do whatever I could to help them.
In 2008, my little sister Angelina Maria was born. When I started GRL Collective in 2017 she was 9. She believed in me and this business way before I believed in me and this business. She was so matter of fact about it all that it made me laugh, but she was right. Running this business really is my full-time dream job, and yes one day I will hire her haha.
What is the most impactful lesson you’ve learned while developing GRL Collective?
That my empathy is not a weakness that it is my superpower.
How does GRL Collective provide representation for the Latinx community as well as women, globally?
Previous to starting GRL Collective I didn’t see myself reflected in a lot of brands. I wanted GRL Collective to reflect BIPOC women in all the ways that we exist. We are not one thing. I am Mexican-American, Chicana, Xicana but I do not speak Spanish and I was raised in Fontana, not Boyle Heights like my Grandma, not Lincoln Heights like my Grandpa and not the San Gabriel Valley like my parents. I do not speak Spanish, not because I do not want to but because my Grandparents were told not to teach their children Spanish, so my parents never learned.
Back in the 60’s in Los Angeles, many Chicanos were doing their best to assimilate to protect their children from violence and provide them with greater opportunities. I had a hard time finding my footing within the Latinx community because of all of this, I never felt I was “Latina enough” so when I first started GRL Collective I was weary to make anything that was Latinx centric. As I started to educate myself more and immerse myself more into my culture, I started to realize that my experience was also other people’s experience. I started to share more and more on the GRL Collective platform around growing up not speaking Spanish, about the stigma around being a Latina and wearing hoop earrings etc. and I received so many messages from other Latinas echoing such similar experiences.
They made me feel welcome and loved and embraced. I finally got comfortable and started making products for these girls, and everyone loved them. Our Mind Like Frida. Moves Like Selena Tee is one of our best-selling products along with our AOC hoops, sweatshirt & tank top. It is important for Latinas to see themselves in positions of power, being admired and celebrated. Selena did that for us. Frida did that for us. AOC does that for us. Seeing ourselves as entrepreneurs, and gracing covers and stages that previously were not reserved for us is empowering.
I get many messages from fellow Latinas that sometimes bring me to tears, thanking me for doing what I do, for showing them that Latinas could be entrepreneurs, that we can make a difference, that we can hold space. I don’t share that to toot my own horn because trust me, most days I still feel extremely far from that, but I share it to say that existing as a successful Latina entrepreneur is how I represent.
Making clothing so that my community feels seen is an honor. Hiring, paying, and collaborating with other Latinx creatives is how we put money in each other’s pockets and it is something that I am dedicated to. I am proud of my culture and where I came from and I have many people and experiences to thank for that. It is my plan that once we have reached our monetary goal in India that we will expand to Mexico and then Kenya. Thank you, Aerie, for empowering us on this journey!