From dressing up to masking up: How an Ann Arbor quinceañera-planning business survived the pandemic

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

What's a girl to do when she has the dress, but no party to wear it to? This was the question facing Kim Gamez, CEO and founder of Mi Padrino, an online party planning platform for quinceañeras and other traditional Hispanic celebrations. Days into the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, one of the wholesalers who sells products on Mi Padrino let Gamez know it had ceased making dresses and switched to masks instead. 

"At first I thought, 'I don't need masks. I'm an event planning site. Why would I need masks?'"  Gamez says.

Hundreds of events that had been planned on Mi Padrino were already postponed or cancelled. Before the shutdown, Mi Padrino's users were up 180% over the previous year. Over the course of 2020, the site would ultimately suffer a 90% drop in revenue. Right away, Gamez knew she would need to make drastic changes if Mi Padrino was going to survive. So she reached out to her personal network to see if she knew anyone who could use the masks her supplier was offering. Born and raised in Jackson, Mich., Gamez has deep roots in the manufacturing community. She was immediately bombarded with messages. 

"The first friend to respond said, 'No, Kim, I don't just need them for myself; I need them for my staff,'" she recalls.

As demand from Gamez's manufacturing friends flooded in, the self-described serial entrepreneur saw an opportunity. 

"It was like, 'They have a need. I have a resource. I can do this. We're going to fund this company one way or another,'" Gamez says.

She and her team quickly created a website, Working with the wholesaler, they developed several washable mask designs. Instead of focusing on individual buyers, Gamez approached companies that would yield larger contracts.

"We ended up providing over 100,000 masks just to schools. It was the craziest summer," she says. "Lots of people needed masks: local manufacturers, the city of Jackson, all the different townships, their police departments, the [Jackson County] Department of Transportation." 

From the end of March through early July, they sold $300,000 worth of masks – enough to fund the company through the summer. 

"We weren't going to try and compete in the mask space [long term]," Gamez says. "It was just easy for us to do that initially. We needed to focus on the survival of the company." 

Although she had to lay off staff, and relocate Mi Padrino's headquarters from its Ann Arbor office to her home in Grass Lake, Gamez is looking forward. 

"A lot of companies have been impacted by this, so I reached out to people," she says. "If there's a time to pair up, it's now." 

Her team-player mentality resulted in partnerships that will take Mi Padrino in exciting new directions in 2021. The same has been true for Mi Padrino's users. 

"It's been great to see how these families are also adapting," she says. "People are saying, 'Okay, instead of a quinceañera, we'll just postpone it, and it'll be a sweet sixteen instead." 

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications. 

Photo courtesy of Kim Gamez.
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