Deskside Chat with the Board: Mary Rohlich

April 29, 2024
Hyesun Ahn

Thank you for making time to meet, Mary, and of course, thank you for joining Children’s Institute (CII) as a new board member. We’re excited to have you here and are eager to learn more about you. Could you start by sharing about yourself, including some of your professional and personal milestones?

I grew up in Iowa until I was 14 and then I moved to Massachusetts, including a couple years in Japan. I mention this because moving around throughout my childhood has impacted my life quite significantly.

I am now living in Los Angeles and have been here for over 20 years, so this is my home. Before my senior year of college at the University of Wisconsin Madison, I interned in LA to see if I wanted to pursue a career in the film industry. I did.

Being half-Japanese in Iowa, I didn’t get to see myself represented on screen. I want to show underrepresented communities on screen so they can see that there are people that look like them and encourage them to reach for that and find connection. Once I made the move, I started temping as a receptionist which grew into a role as a development assistant. From there, I worked my way up to working alongside a director. Over time, that director and I built a film and tv production company together.

Another major milestone was during my pregnancy. I was about to embark on major life changes, in more ways than one. I gave birth to my first and only daughter in 2017, while becoming an independent producer for the first time. After four years in that role, I transitioned to my current role as the Head of Purple Pebble Pictures. Looking back, it was a huge, daunting step for me to take into the unknown, but with my own personal changes came a desire to make my own big and bold moves, professionally.

Tell us about your day-to-day as the Head of Purple Pebble Productions.

As Head of TV and Film, my job is to build out the company through various projects that are all-encompassing. My work as a producer involves tv, film, narrative, unscripted – everything across the board. In my role, I collaborate with writers, actors and directors to get all the pieces of an idea together from inception all the way to the finished product.

I find myself having to read a lot – from books to scripts and everything else in between.

You mention you read a lot as a producer. Do you think all that reading connects back to your childhood in any way?

I think about that a lot, actually. While I grew up loving stories and watching shows and movies, I wouldn’t describe my childhood self as an avid reader. I do remember going to the video store as a child to rent movies and discovering new experiences through film. There were a few my dad showed me that made a lasting impact.

I love all forms of storytelling, but through my work, I must admit that I’m surprised about how much I am now reading as part of the job. And I love it!

That’s wonderful! What a beautiful connection you have from watching movies and enjoying storytelling as a child to what you currently do in the film industry. With such a colorful background, can you share about the thing that draws you to Children’s Institute’s North Star?

Opportunities and access are important avenues that allow a person to dream. What I love about Children’s Institute is that it gives people access to education and fundamental needs that all children deserve.

If you have the resources that Children’s Institute provides, from early childhood education to emotional wellbeing and beyond, people can get out of tough situations and find the freedom to go beyond, to discover and fulfill lifelong dreams. The ability to dream can seem out of reach to those who are too busy obtaining basic needs for survival, but Children’s Institute works in communities to provide access to these essential resources.

Going back to education, how do you think your education has paved the way to be where you are today? What opportunities did they create?

Both my parents were teachers – my mom was a math teacher and my father was a professor of East Asian languages and literature. As a child, education was big in my home, and because of that, I took my education very seriously. I enjoyed learning.

Something I’ve realized as an adult is my desire to learn for the sake of learning and not just for testing and benchmarking. What’s evolved in me is my hunger for knowledge and joining Children’s Institute is part of my own personal growth and desire for continual learning.

Could you share some of your future goals? And more specifically, what is it that gets you excited to start each day?

Professionally, I’m constantly excited about what I’m doing and what I’m working on. I love collaboration – as a producer, you can’t do your work alone. It requires working with other people and my joy comes from finding people that I connect with and telling the stories that I want to tell.

Ultimately, my dream is to work on projects that I love with the people that I love. If I can continue doing that and come home to be with my family, I’ve achieved my dream.

Is there a certain story or message that you’d like to share with others?

This is the thing that I think about every day – what is it that I want to say? I want to tell stories that have heart. Stories that connect with people because that’s what happens when I read and watch movies. I get sucked into stories and I want others to experience that as well.

I believe in human connection. The world can be very isolating, but we’re meant to be in community. The human experience, feeling connection, seeing yourself on screen – the way a character looks or even what they’re experiencing emotionally – those things are what’s really important for me.

And finally, for a light-hearted question, what’s your favorite movie and how has it impacted you?

This is not necessarily my “favorite” movie, (because even if I had to narrow my list down, it would be at least ten films long), but since this is for Children’s Institute, I’ll share my favorite kid’s movie which is the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie. I remember going to the theater to watch it, and I absolutely loved it. I’d say I was obsessed with it. I wore the t-shirts and recited lines from the movie with my brother – we both loved it together.

Into my twenties, I bonded with my now-husband through the movie. When we first met, we quoted that movie to each other without knowing if the other person knew the movie reference, only to find out that we both were obsessed with it!

The movie still impacts me. Right before the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie came out, my daughter and I watched the original together and she loved the fact that my family embraced that movie as a family-unit. You can call that our full-circle moment. It’s so fun for me to experience something like that with the two people I’m closest to.