Kristine Rodriguez leads GRL Collective
by Priscilla Applebee
photography by Christine Diaz
We sit with smiles on Zoom after about 15 minutes of reminiscing about being high school neighbors who did not quite know each others’ stories. This is a catch-up moment that is long overdue. But there is a task at hand: her sharing her story with others. I ask her if she is ready to begin. Anxious that we will not have enough time, yet excited to hear from Kristine Rodriguez about her life journey, I hit record on Zoom.
Entrepreneur, designer, philanthropist, activist, University of La Verne alumna, daughter and wife are just some titles that define Kristine Rodriguez. Her company, GRL Collective, was featured on KTLA Channel 5 News, and the Los Angeles Times listed it as a prestigious “Latino Owned Lifestyle Business.” Kristine has led multiple virtual discussions about Latinx History, sterilization and voting on the GRL Collective’s Instagram account. She was named Aerie Real Changemaker from the Aerie “Real Campaign.” But her journey didn’t happen overnight and not without struggles.
Kristine says GRL Collective started in 2017. After she testified against her abuser and struggled with mental health, she needed to find a way to give back to her community. That is when she found the Sambhali Trust and its “No Bad Touch” program through a friend who was in the Peace Corp. Sambhali Trust is a non-profit organization based in Jodhpur, India, whose mission is to develop and empower women and girls. Almost 20% of women are illegally married before 15 years of age, and Jodhpur has the fifth highest incidents of domestic violence in India. The Sambhali Trust provides resources including a hotline, emergency shelter, and small loans for women to start a business while still supporting their children.
Kristine jumped in. She quit her job at a marketing firm, raised money, and spent 40 days solo in Jodhpur, India. The women and girls she assisted left Kristine wanting to continue to help the Sambhali Trust. On her flight back home, she did not know when or if she would ever see India again, but she knew she wanted to help, and GRL Collective was born.
Kristine grew up in what society calls a “blended family.” She had her mother Denise, stepfather, two stepbrothers and her sister Erica, who was born with Trisomy 13, a chromosomal condition that affects one’s intellectual abilities and physical appearance, with the unlikely chance of living past a first birthday. But behind the smiles, Kristine held a secret. She was sexually abused by her stepfather during her childhood. Her only thought was to keep the people she loved together, so mum was the word. Kristine’s mom Denise needed to find ways to put food on the table. So, Kristine would help with Erica, who needed 24-hour care, while her mom was out working multiple jobs and attending the University of La Verne. “My mom would work late nights. Some of the jobs she took were cleaning offices and schools, and if I could go with her, I would,” says Kristine. “I remember one time she was selling Mary Kay, and she took me out of school to watch Erica so she could meet her sales goal.”
Denise acknowledges the struggles she faced when trying to provide for their family and how the children felt obligated to help. “They saw me struggle with my marriage and trying to put food on the table. I would be in a parking lot at night trying to sell Mary Kay or do a night shift of cleaning from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. to make sure they never did without,” says Denise.
When Erica passed away, Kristine was in high school. By that time, she could no longer keep the secret that held her family together for so long. She told her mother about the abuse, and they moved out for a fresh start. With the help of Kristine’s testimony, her stepfather went to prison on charges from new victims. Even though he was now in prison, Kristine still felt angry, depressed and anxious with no real place to channel it. That’s when she started to do therapy, which led to her finding more things about herself that she needed to work through—such as being a Mexican-American.
Kristine, like many Mexican-American girls, says she did not know where to fit in society. Being brought up with dual influences from the Mexican culture and the American culture can cause self-doubt, especially during childhood. “I associated being Mexican-American as having less,” says Kristine, “I always felt like we were struggling. None of us was wealthy, or what the nation deems as successful.”
But Kristine found a role model in Tejano singer and Grammy winner Selena—a non-Spanish speaker representing Mexican-American women who overcame prejudice within the music industry to unite the Latinx community. Selena resonated with many Latinx members, like Kristine, who are often teased for how they pronounce words in English but with Spanish accents or vice versa. “She was the first Mexican-American crossover artist. All these years later, people are still talking about her and love all the things she brought to us. She is one of those women, especially for Latinas, that generations will continue to talk about, and who will continue to inspire.”
As many of her friends were white, this made Kristine think only Mexican-Americans had struggles with money, divorce and the other issues vs. what she saw in her acquaintances. “I felt ashamed for not being Mexican enough. I felt ashamed for not being white enough,” says Kristine. “It was always a lot of pressure from the religion we chose to the clothes we wore. It was always something from both sides.”
In high school, Kristine’s best friend Natasha, who is Cuban, unknowingly showed Kristine the love she had for her Cuban culture. At that moment, Kristine thought about all the things she loved about being Mexican. She loved the colors, dances, traditions, and, of course, the food. “I was ashamed of being ashamed of my culture,” says Kristine, “I listened to my teenage boyfriend who told me wearing red lipstick made me look like a chola or hoops to look less Latina-Chicana-Mexican and I would do all those things.” Kristine credits her husband Drew in her journey of being proud to be Mexican.
Drew also supported Kristine financially and emotionally when she quit her job at the marketing firm to get GRL Collective going. “I’ve never had the privilege to quit a job in my life until that moment when Drew said, ‘He got me’ because if not, I would still be working in a toxic environment. I would be using all my brain power and creativity for someone else’s dream. He gave me time to give it my all into something that could make a difference, and that I was passionate about.”
She started by selling earrings out of her caboodle to both her and her mom’s friends. For every $20 someone spent, $1 was going back to India, which equaled about 75 rupees. In perspective, a loaf of bread cost about 20 rupees. Even though Kristine thought her caboodle would be a forever side hustle, it was the people around Kristine who said otherwise. “People would always say, ‘This is a really good idea,’ or ‘This is going to be big one day,’ or ‘One day you’re going to be doing this full time.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, sounds great.’ ” says Kristine.
But now Kristine has been able to hire employees and build a team making the caboodle side hustle into a full-time job with the motto message that, “We Should All Give a F*ck.” “People should care about each other, care about certain causes, think about the future of this planet, this country, of their families,” she says. “People who can make a difference do not sit at home twiddling their thumbs. It’s not easy, and it’s a lot of hard work. We are giving thousands of dollars to girls’ education in India, Black Lives Matter, and RAICES (a refugee and immigrant center for education and legal services), and we are only able to do it because we are encouraging people to care.”
Even while being in a lead position that is consistently giving, Kristine continued with feelings of self-doubt, and giving up seemed like an option during this journey. The passion to grow GRL Collective was there, but the money was not. Kristine’s grandma Yolanda was able to help get her going, but it was also a young woman named Maddie from the yoga studio, where Kristine was working, who also decided to help. “Maddie came to me and told me her parents give her money every Christmas to donate to whatever causes she wants. And this time, she wanted to donate to GRL Collective,” says Kristine “Her believing in me, and knowing what I could do with the money helped me get GRL Collective to the next steps.”
Kristine headed back to India with a group of friends for her third visit. During the journey, her mind was in a constant debate about whether keeping GRL Collective was worth it. Once she arrived and looked into the eyes of the girls at Sambhali Trust, she knew she had to keep going. But now her friends, who flew across the world with her, have also become invested in GRL Collective. Kristine created this new community.
“It’s one of those experiences that forever alters your perspective on what’s possible, and what’s needed to make a difference. It recalibrates your point of view of the world. The girls and women of Sambhali Trust are amazing,” says Angel Kenned, who went on two trips with Kristine to India, “Many of them have endured circumstances that few of us can relate to; yet they are strong and hopeful.”
Before the pandemic hit, Kristine was planning another trip to India and to build up the GRL Collective brand. She invested the last of her own money into pop-up events inventory, which included totes and GRL Collective branded shirts. But once the COVID-19 lockdowns began, she canceled her trip, and the last of her money was sitting in boxes, so she needed a new investor. This time it was herself. She used her credit cards, which she had worked on to get her credit score up, and invested it in GRL Collective.
Kristine decided to put together GRL Collective “The Quarantine Care Packages.” The packages came with a notepad, pen and a mug with the option to add-on a greeting card or even a charcoal face mask. This was a big opportunity for Kristine and GRL Collective to get out of the COVID slump. “This was a chance for small businesses, especially ones who ship from home, to grow,” she says. “The places that you would normally go to weren’t open. We were also able to provide faster shipping than most places, including Amazon.”
Creating a business out of thin air that gives back to a community, and then watching it grow and succeed turned Kristine, who was once self-conscious and unsure of herself, into an empowered woman. With more than 23,000 followers on Instagram, and 36,000 on TikTok, she ships her GRL Collective items around the globe. Celebrities like Michelle Monaghan, American Ferrera and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan wear the GRL Collective brand on their social media platforms.
At this moment of her journey, Kristine is happy but notes that it can change five months from now. “I think I’ve learned this is a constant journey that includes taking time for self-love, self-care and self-reflection. And sometimes you have to hop on a plane, go across the world, and spend 40 days by yourself,” says Kristine. “You have to stop to listen to what you need—not the pressures that others are putting on you, even if it sounds crazy. Everyone has a superpower. So, find what yours is, and use it to the best of your ability.”