Maika Llorens Gulati: San Rafael’s One-Woman Whirlwind

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Izzy Sonnet, Contributor

On a warm evening in the late 1980’s, a teenage girl is starting her junior year in high school. She works during the day to make money for herself and her family, whose financial situation has been strained ever since her father died when she was eleven. Her name is Maika Gulati, and she is now in Marin County, sitting on the School Board of San Rafael City Schools. 

The teenage Maika wouldn’t have imagined moving to the United States, or marrying a man from India. She didn’t think she would learn English from a combination of the British Council in Spain and people in Chinatown, San Francisco. Her plan for the future wasn’t to open a restaurant in downtown San Rafael, work on a farm, or run for City Council after years of involvement in the San Rafael education system.

However, all of these things have proven true for Maika Gulati. 

Maika’s experiences, through countless jobs, cultures, and communities, have created a unique perspective on her passions. And her involvement in so many aspects of San Rafael has made her voice an important one for the community.

“I feel that my path, everything I have done in my life, has brought me to where I am right now,” Maika said, laughing. “Which is really strange, you know, because I never thought that that would be for me!”

After her education in marketing and business administration, Maika worked for the tech company Compaq in Spain. She met her husband, who grew up in India and had previously lived in the US for six years. They decided to move to the US in 1996 to the Bret Hart neighborhood of San Rafael, near her father-in-law. The plan was to stay for five years.

Immigrating to a new country came with many challenges for Maika, including learning a new language.

“I had to reinvent myself, because I was doing communications and marketing in Spain, and I come to this country and I cannot speak the language, so I took a few jobs to practice my English,” she explained.

She spent time working as a teller for Wells Fargo, doing marketing for “some guys from Russia in the healthcare industry,” building databases (“because you don’t have to speak when you build databases”), and eventually finding another tech company where she worked for six years. 

“That was interesting,” she would always say after describing each job. 

Then, in what she calls a “moment of insanity,” Maika and her husband opened their own tapas restaurant in downtown San Rafael, Sabor of Spain. While the restaurant was open, Maika says that it was fun, despite it being a difficult business.

“When I had the restaurant, sometimes I hated it a little bit,” says Gulati.  “It was crazy business, and there are always challenges, but I think just if you do what you love, you know, you have to find the positive about it.”

While Maika learned English and found different jobs and passions in the US, she also discovered how much she liked living here. The 5 year commitment turned into 10 years, then 15, and then 20. Maika not only loved the business she had in San Rafael, but the different aspects of the community.

“Every Sunday we would go to the Canal to my father-in-law’s apartment, and he would make this amazing Indian food, and it was our traditional family Sunday dinner,” Maika said. “And I just fell in love with the area — I love the weather in San Rafael, I love the diversity in our community — so we bought our house in ‘98, and we’ve been there all this time.”

After four years, Maika and her husband sold Sabor of Spain and Maika decided to take a year off from work. At the time, her two children were starting at Sun Valley Elementary School, so she volunteered for the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). She was shocked that there were no Spanish or bilingual classes at the elementary schools.

“We have such beautiful diversity in our schools, and I couldn’t believe we weren’t teaching Spanish to the kids,” Maika explained. She spoke about how education is one of her passions. 

“I think [education] is the only way to get out of poverty,” she said. As someone who comes from a less-than-affluent family and had to work very hard to get where she is now, Maika fully appreciates the opportunities that education gives. “I really believe that education is the number one right of every person.”

After being in the PTO, Maika became a part of HeadsUp (the San Rafael Public Education Foundation) to have an impact on the middle schools as well. 

At Davidson Middle School, students who were English learners or students who needed additional academic classes could not choose an art or music elective. The additional English or other subject class took the place of an elective period.

“I thought that was extremely unfair,” said Maika. “Some people need different things, and some people need more things, so we really have to provide that so we can all succeed.” 

However, after six years in HeadsUp, Maika realized that this change had to come from higher up in the educational system. She applied and was accepted to a vacant position on the School Board in 2015. Since then, she has been successfully reelected to the position. Now, although she says that the elective system is not perfect yet, every middle school student has at least one elective, regardless of whether they need an extra English class or not. 

Tanya Burdick, another mother and a member of HeadsUp, has worked with Maika since she was the executive director of HeadsUp and Burdick co-chaired Summerfest, a fundraising festival for the schools. 

“In general, she’s been trying to provide extra resources to everybody, but also hopefully to the communities that are really struggling,” said Burdick, who has also become good friends with Maika. “She’s enthusiastic about what she does, and I think that’s pretty contagious and awesome.”

And Maika’s efforts have not been easy. She faced negative opinions from people while she ran for school board, and received lots of pushback on her ideas for electives. She attributes some of these struggles to her ethnicity and accent.

“It’s been very difficult, you know, sometimes having an accent,” Maika told me. “People don’t have patience to talk to you, but this thing about having an accent and being bilingual is that we are really good listeners. English isn’t our first language so we really have to listen.”

Despite these difficulties, Maika has used her skills as a communicator to navigate problems and issues within the school board. Board members Natu Tuatagaloa and Greg Knell describe her as a “peacekeeper” who manages the conflicts and makes everyone feel included, even if she doesn’t agree.

“She’s not quick to make a judgement or opinion without getting both sides or all sides of the story,” commented Burdick. 

Maika’s multicultural background also makes her a voice in the education system for minority communities and immigrants.

“She understands what it’s like to be on the outside looking in,” said Natu Tuatagaloa. He thinks that her knowledge of not only the Spanish language but sensitivity to the immigrant experience brings a great deal to the board. “It makes a huge difference in making sure that people are being understood and know that their voices are being heard.”

Through the school board, Maika has helped create English programs for English learners and pushed for a new superintendent to replace Michael Watenpaugh.

Maika has always loved the outdoors, and describes the environment as one of her passions. Her grandfather gave her his love for gardening, and her father taught her about the ocean, which is one of her favorite things. These two family members had a huge influence on Maika. Her love of nature inspired her to look for a job related to the environment after her previous jobs. 

So in addition to being the President of the School Board, Maika’s main employment is now as the executive director at Slide Ranch, a farm in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area that partners with schools for educational tours. 

“We kind of found each other, so it’s my little unicorn,” said Maika when talking about how she came to work at Slide Ranch in 2017. “It is such a magical place!”

As the executive director, Maika oversees everything that happens at Slide Ranch, including the programs, the farm and facilities, customer service, marketing, partnerships, finance, and communications with the board of directors. Her job at Slide Ranch combines her ties with the environment with her passion for education, something that she loves about the job.

Burdick remembers when lambs were born at Slide Ranch, and Maika was “ecstatic,” sending pictures of the lambs “all the time.”

Maika’s passions have driven her to make an impact on not just the educational system, but the community as a whole in San Rafael. Maika is currently running unopposed to be a City Council member for the first time this November. She hopes to help support small businesses that are going bankrupt and make environmental progress with plans for the city. After learning that over 60% of the kids in our school district are in the free and reduced lunch program, Maika felt that naturally those children would have a hard time focusing on learning if there was so much worry about housing and food. 

“If you have 3 families living in one apartment, it’s really hard to do your homework,” said Maika, referring to the expensive housing situation in Marin. The district that Maika is running to represent for the City Council, District 1, includes the Canal, a highly populated area housing lower-income families. 

To help achieve her housing goal, she is currently working to move Wildcare, an animal rescue nonprofit. This would create more space for affordable housing downtown near Laurel Dell Elementary School and Davidson. “Hopefully I can help make a difference for all our families.” 

Additionally, Maika hopes to create more connection and support between different communities and groups of people in San Rafael. “We have such amazing cultures, languages, communities that sometimes there is partition, like ‘Oh here are people in this neighborhood, here are people in that neighborhood,’ so I would love to build bridges out to connect communities, because I think we need each other.”

As Maika runs for City Council, her influence on San Rafael will be extended from the school system to the community as a whole. Although she certainly did not start off her career as a board or council member, Maika has used her skills and previous experiences to make a big impact on those around her.

“I do believe in making a choice, when you’re thinking about the future, and never look back!” Maika said about how she got to where she is now. “Whatever choice I’m going to make is going to be the right choice, and I’m not going to be thinking ‘What if I would have done something else, because I wouldn’t be where I am right now.’”