Marlo Zarka was trained as a horticulturalist. But quickly, her career of growing plants transformed into one of "growing people."
“I really wanted to find a garden that I could just apply my own skills to," she said. "I came down (to Jacksonville) for the Cummer Museum. It was phenomenal. They were changing over to the fact that they wanted to be a museum with a qualified botanical garden. So that was just exactly what I wanted.”
Marlo stayed for the renovation of the museum’s Italian garden. Then she learned of a position to manage an even larger garden.
"I had a connection through a vendor, who said the Jacksonville Zoo’s looking for someone to be the curator of horticulture there," she said. "It was a new venue for me — the idea of animals in exhibits — and it was a wonderful learning experience.”
She was also leading larger teams. So Zarka went back to school to earn a master's degree in public administration.
“More and more people were getting assigned to me, and I was getting further and further away from plants," she said. "I hadn’t set out to manage people, but I was finding that I was good at it.
"I could grow people better than I could grow plants.”
Zarka moved from the zoo to a senior position with the Jacksonville Parks Department in 2003.
“Mayor (John) Delaney was wrapping up his administration, and I got chosen to serve on the transition team,” she said.
Zarka helped familiarize the new administration with the city’s ongoing initiatives. The experience, she said, was eye opening.
“Now that I have a taste of being in a room with decision makers, I’d like to keep doing that," she said. "I’m OK with letting go of the career that got me this far — being a horticulturist and manager at that level — but I’d like to stay in a discussion that matters.”
Zarka later started a consulting company and, in 2004, the Superbowl Committee retained her services.
“It was my job to facilitate the federal, state and local agencies that were going to prepare for what’s called a Unified Command Plan,” she said.
But, Zarka said, after eight years, funding for that plan had largely disappeared so she pivoted again.
“I felt as though that if I began working with people, people make organizations happen," she said. "I am a certified professional coach, working primarily with professionals.”
And in some ways, that’s brought her back to her starting point: art, science and growth.
“I learned that there is a method; there is a process with plants," she said. "You plant a seed; you water it; it grows. It gets bigger; you prune it; it grows more.
"But you have to follow what the plant is responding to. So if it needs water, then you water it. You don’t just water it because it’s Tuesday."
She added: "Working with people, I have found that it is really the same thing. People need to check themselves for where are they going to grow best. ... If I look at people like plants now, they need to have a process as well. They need their water; they need their sunlight, but it can’t be based just upon a recipe.”