She Never Gave Up on Her Dream of Working at Pixar

This animation-loving Cal grad shares her secret to success.
By Rachelle Federico '11, as told to Nathalia Alcantara

GREEN AND YELLOW FLAMES engulfed Maleficent as she transformed into a gigantic dragon.

“Fire is supposed to be red!” I thought, staring at my TV. Then, when Prince Phillip threw his sword through the heart of the fire-breathing monster, I was done.

My coach mentioned that Pixar was down the street. I immediately dropped my fork. I had no idea Pixar was near campus!

I always loved animation, but Disney’s Sleeping Beauty instantly became my favorite movie. I was still in elementary school when I first watched it, but at that time I already knew that I wanted to work with films. I didn’t know how to get there; I just knew I wanted to make people feel the magic I felt watching those movies. But it didn’t turn out to be a quick road.

I’m from Tucson, Arizona, and, growing up, I was surrounded by my grandparents, aunts, and uncles on both sides. Like a typical Latino family, we all lived together. I loved it. But I knew I had to leave the nest if I was ever going to work in the film industry. It was a difficult decision; I’m the oldest of four sisters, and the first in my family to get out of the city or go to college.

Playing sports was my only way out. My family would always take me to University of Arizona sporting events, where they would tell me, “This is going to be you!” Playing basketball in high school, I got attention from college scouts and later a full ride at Cal. I majored in media studies, hoping to understand how movies influence the world, and, of course, aiming at a career in the industry.

One day in my freshman year, at lunch with the team, I mentioned my love of animation. My coach mentioned that Pixar was down the street. I immediately dropped my fork. I had no idea Pixar was near campus!

The next weekend, I asked a teammate to drive me there to take pictures. My world went upside down. I was like, “This is it. I’m going to get there.” I applied about 10 times for any kind of starting position, and I took every bit of advice I got from anybody who had worked there. I just kept trying and trying, but no luck.

To anyone with a dream, I would say: Keep trying, keep going, show people that you’re hungry and that you want to be there regardless of how long it takes.

After I graduated, I was desperate for income and started applying to everything under the Moon, specifically in marketing and TV commercials. It was just miss after miss. Finally, at a post-game interview with donors, I met someone who worked at a solar company.

I was hired as an operation assistant and ended up staying in the solar industry for about seven years, climbing the corporate ladder and eventually becoming a manager. I had a typical tech job in San Francisco, and it was paying well. Still, I continued to apply to my dream job at Pixar a couple of times a year, and every time I would just get a different reason why I didn’t get the gig.

I decided it was time to compromise. In 2018, at age 29, I restarted my career from scratch. I took a job as a production assistant at Pixar, which meant a 70 percent pay cut. I went from overseeing a group of about 20 engineers to doing basic assistant work, from eating out every night, to cooking dinners on a tight budget. It was challenging, but, with the help of my wife, I learned how to make a budget, how to follow it, and we made it work. Looking back, it was probably the best thing that could have happened.

Today, I don’t ever wake up on a Sunday morning dreading work the next day. I’m as happy as can be with my job. In the little over three years that I’ve been at Pixar, I went from being a production assistant to a department manager. I’m slowly making my way up and enjoying every step along the way. My ultimate career goal is to become a producer, making decisions that are going to make the best film possible, partnering with directors and building up people around me to be the best versions of themselves. Not only do I want to be a producer, I want to be the best producer.

I still have many dreams for my career, but I look back, and I’m so proud of what I have already accomplished. I proved everyone wrong, including myself. To anyone with a dream, I would say: Keep trying, keep going, show people that you’re hungry and that you want to be there regardless of how long it takes.

From the Fall 2021 issue of California.
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