Nina Vaca has been in business for more than two decades, starting back in 1996 when she started Pinnacle Group. During that time, Pinnacle has grown from a niche IT service firm to an enterprise-level IT company. She says the journey hasn’t been all roses: The growth came from extraordinary dreams, education, a lot of opportunities, and, yes, even some failures.
We spoke with Nina about her background and her advice for entrepreneurs.
Q: We can read all about your bio online, but what are some of the most important parts of your business life? How did you get to where you are today?
NV: There are some things that are not in my professional bio, but I believe these things are the most important for business leaders and entrepreneurs. Sure, you can read about the awards and accolades, but you rarely hear about the failures, setbacks, and heartbreak. These are the things that make us who we are. In life, how you react to what happens to you is what defines you as a person.
Pinnacle took 23 years to become an overnight sensation, but life is a deck of cards and everybody’s dealt a different hand. It’s what you do with that hand that defines you as a person. That is what it means to lead with a courageous heart. I was blessed to be raised by two of the most courageous people in the world, and I credit them for teaching me the value of entrepreneurship from an early age.
Entrepreneurship and Civic Leadership
Q: Tell us about your family, what impacts did your parents have on you?
NV: My father was an entrepreneur, and my mother was a civic leader. Together, they taught me the life lessons that I’ve used to get where I am today.
My father taught me about humility and perseverance, both of which are crucial to successfully running a business. He knew that entrepreneurship was the key to our American Dream, and he made sure that I knew it as well.
My mom was a civic leader. She didn’t care about money; she cared about the community. She’s the one who taught me to have courage, to have a voice, and to stand up for others. My mom became an Honorary Consul to Ecuador, which was a very special title given to community servants by the President of Ecuador. She was also the first woman to be President of La FEDEE (Federación de Entidades Ecuatorianos en el Exterior). My mom was everything I strove for in the Hispanic community. She stood for Ecuadorians, she stood for everyone, and she galvanized people to advance prosperity for the whole.
That’s what my parents did to get their five children ahead in life. Because of that, I had a front-row seat to watch my parents succeed as entrepreneurs and role models.
Immigrating to the United States
Q: You immigrated to the United States. What were some of the lessons you learned about how to succeed in this country?
NV: I’m a proud immigrant to the United States. I was born in Quito, Ecuador, and grew up in Los Angeles, California. As an immigrant, I’m living proof that we are making a positive contribution to this country.
My parents instilled strong values in me during my childhood. We were taught the importance of faith, family, hard work, and giving back. Watching my parents, I learned what it meant to be a leader and entrepreneur.
Once, my mom sat me down and told me, “Nina, we are here in this country to be contributors, to make this country a better place.”
Those lessons unlocked my potential and will continue to do so for other immigrants. With that potential, we see opportunity. And with opportunity comes prosperity.
Growing From Coast to Coast
Q: Where did you go to college? What was your first job? How did you end up in Dallas?
NV: What you won’t read in my biography is that I didn’t go directly from high school to college like most kids. Instead, at age 17, I was running a business. Not because I wanted to run a business, but because I had to. Our family had experienced tragedy with the death of my father, and entrepreneurship was necessary if we were to stay afloat.
I learned so much that year. Namely, I learned that I didn’t want to run a business that young. At the time, I felt that it wasn’t the best way to move my family forward. The only way ahead was through education, which is why I left Los Angeles and completed my education in the great state of Texas.
After my education, I started my career at age 25 in New York City, but I wanted to move back home to Texas, where my family was. So I moved to Dallas, where I founded Pinnacle Group. Keep in mind that I didn’t create a company to get rich, but rather to do what I could to advance my family. The way to advancement was through education and entrepreneurship.
Challenges With Growing Pinnacle Group
Q: Pinnacle Group has had a lot of incredible success, but those successes have probably come with a lot of tough times, too. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
NV: Today, Pinnacle provides IT workforce solutions to enterprise companies. Founding Pinnacle has been one of the most amazing journeys of my life, and I feel incredibly blessed. But nobody said that entrepreneurship was easy. In my 23 years at Pinnacle, we have:
- Had a liquidation plan in place
- Nearly missed payroll
- Almost gone out of business (after the 9/11 attacks)
We’ve been through stressful strategic planning meetings. And I’ve had four children in the process. We have been through so much throughout this journey that I sometimes marvel at how we were able to keep ourselves afloat.
The Turning Point
Q: How were you able to bounce back from these tough times?
NV: When Pinnacle was about to go under, it was a hard moment for everyone. But it’s at your hardest moments that you find your inner strength. It took courage to make a change, and just as I decided to uproot my life at age 17 to get an education, I made a change in 2001.
For me, and many other immigrants, failure isn’t an option. As an immigrant, you find a way trough. That’s true for entrepreneurs, as well. You always find a way, no matter what. So we fought to keep Pinnacle alive.
After hitting rock bottom, we dusted ourselves off and embraced change at Pinnacle. That was the beginning of the company’s renaissance, and it was made possible by putting on my recruiting hat. I decided to surround myself with some of the best people in the industry, and it paid off. For the last 13 years, Pinnacle has been on Inc. magazine’s list of fastest-growing companies.
Our People Grew Us
Q: What is the most critical piece of Pinnacle’s success?
NV: People always ask me what our secret is. It’s simple: people. Whether you’re in a government organization, nonprofit, or business, people are your most valuable assets. Build something larger than yourself, and it gets people engaged. At this point, the business stops being about you. It becomes something so much bigger and more meaningful, and that galvanizes people for the better. By focusing on people, we managed to grow Pinnacle into an international organization.
There’s No Such Thing as an Overnight Sensation
Q: What are some of your proudest moments as CEO of Pinnacle?
NV: My 23 years in business have been so exciting, and yet, after accepting more than 230 local and national awards on behalf of Pinnacle, the most exciting moment in my career happened within the last year. Last year, Pinnacle was named the fastest-growing woman-owned business in the United States for the second time.
This experience made me realize that there’s no such thing as an overnight sensation. Nobody is an “overnight success” because you’ve worked your entire life to get to this moment. Success requires hard work, perseverance, and, most importantly, people.
When I accepted the award for being the fastest-growing women-owned company at the Bonaventure Hotel, I wanted to make sure that my values were heard. It may have been my name on the award, but the award didn’t belong to me. That’s because individuals don’t build companies, people do. The award was dedicated to the Pinnacle’s associates who have been there every step of the way – some from the very beginning. Second, it’s dedicated to the advocates, mentors, and sponsors who helped me and my company grow. I dedicated it to people who gave us opportunities, to family, and the people who are always standing firmly behind us. And finally, I dedicated the award to the customers and corporations that allowed Pinnacle to grow.
You see, the key to success is people. If those people have the opportunities to succeed, they will, every time, without fail. Hispanic entrepreneurship grows our great country, but if I hadn’t been given opportunities, my story would be completely different.
Welcoming Hispanic Entrepreneurs
Q: Why is it so important for you to support Hispanic businesses?
NV: Hispanic businesses are the backbone of American industry. According to a study by Stanford University, there are more than 4.4 million Hispanic businesses in the United States.
A group of Stanford alumni came together and asked an essential question: How can we advance prosperity for the Hispanic community? What can we do to help Hispanics advance while creating wealth in the United States?
The answer is entrepreneurship.
When the Hispanic community does well, the country does well. If we can move Hispanic businesses forward, we’ll make a better United States. Latinos are responsible for 50 percent of the growth in the American population, so if you aren’t already related to someone Hispanic, you will be soon. Plus, our average age is 15 years younger than the average American. We’re the future of American enterprise, but not all Latinos want to be entrepreneurs. Everyone has to take their own path.
What’s important is to give Hispanics access to the opportunities that welcome entrepreneurship. Not every Latino will choose to be an entrepreneur, but none will if they don’t have the necessary opportunities. With these opportunities, we can truly start to make an impact on the society around us in a meaningful way.
Corporations and governments need to have Hispanic representation. We need Latinos in the C-suite, on boards, in elected office, and in other positions of power. That’s what will inspire great transformation for the American economy.
Give More Opportunities Than You Take
Q: How can corporations make a difference for entrepreneurs?
NV: I have great respect for people who dedicate their lives to advancing other people. The Latino Coalition is one of the many, many organizations developing an entrepreneurial spirit in the Hispanic community. But all organizations need to focus on giving opportunities as much as they receive them.
Corporations play a significant role in Hispanic entrepreneurship. That’s why I’ve dedicated a good portion of my time to advancing entrepreneurship across the globe.
Whether you’re in Vietnam, Jordan, or America, you can be an entrepreneur. People across the world are starting businesses, not to become rich, but to provide for their families. This holds true no matter where you go. It’s certainly true in my case. I didn’t found Pinnacle for the money. I founded the business with a purpose: to advance my family and achieve the American Dream.
Entrepreneurship is the secret sauce for my family. Entrepreneurship opened doors for me and my family, and everyone deserves that. Every entrepreneur in our great country needs opportunities.
How to Be a Better Entrepreneur and Human Being
Q: What is your best advice to entrepreneurs or potential entrepreneurs?
NV: The battle is hardly over once you’ve decided to pursue entrepreneurship. It takes a lot of guts to go all-in on a business.
You’ll be a good entrepreneur if you focus on your business. But you’ll be a great entrepreneur if you have a serving heart. Follow three rules to become a better entrepreneur, regardless of where you are in your journey.
- Invest in the right currency.
Credibility is everything in business. You get your credibility from two places: your performance and your relationships. Performance currency comes from being good at what you do. Be crazy good at what you do, and build a reputation for consistently delivering results, no matter what.
Relationship currency matters, as well. It is the result of your daily deposits into the bank of relationships. Eventually, these relationships will pay off. For example, after 15 years of deposits, one of my contacts nominated me to be the first woman to sit on the corporate board of a certain publicly-traded company. This company is global and operates in 15 countries. I was blessed to be the first woman on the board, and it’s all thanks to investing in relationships.
Keep in mind that it isn’t enough to be the first woman on a board. It’s not enough to be the “first” or the “only.” The real accomplishment is that the company recently inducted its third woman onto its corporate board. Changing the world is possible with the right skills and connections. The real achievement is seeing change.
- Empower other people.
Don’t stop once you have a seat at the boardroom table. It isn’t enough to have a seat; you need to do something with that power once you have it.
Awards for “The Most Powerful” or “The Most Successful” are great, but they aren’t your finish line. The best way to put that power to use is to empower other people by giving back. The most powerful people give their power away and empower others. Don’t focus on being powerful; instead, focus on becoming influential. The only way to be influential is to relinquish your power to lift others. This is a lesson that my mother taught me growing up.
She taught me not to strive to be a person of success but a person of value. Be helpful to others and your success will follow. My mother is unimpressed with the success of our business; she focuses only on its legacy. How has the company changed the world? How have we improved the lives of others? Help people you don’t know. Open doors of opportunity to people you’ll never meet. That’s the key to success as a person and as an entrepreneur.
- Do your part.
Two years ago, Ecuador experienced one of the strongest earthquakes in the world. Out of the blue, my mom called and asked, “Nina, what are you going to do about the earthquake?”
“Mom, are you serious? I have four kids, a business, and a White House appointment. I’ve got too much on my mind to think about the Ecuador earthquake,” I said.
“You’re not going to do anything about the earthquake?” she asked.
“Mom, there are thousands of people hurt. There are many without homes. What am I going to do?” I replied.
I could almost hear my mom shaking her head on the other end of the line. “After all these years, you still haven’t learned,” she said.
I got really upset about that, “Mom, I’m not going to put all of Ecuador on my back!”
“I’m not asking you to put Ecuador on your back,” she said. “I’m asking you to do your part.”
My mom had a point. No matter how small I thought I was, I had a role to play. I could help people get their homes back.
I used my love of triathlons to support Ecuador. I started a social media campaign and partnered with Ecuador’s Rotary Club to start raising funds with a triathlon. I even found three Jesuit priests to help us find land on which to build homes. I crossed the finish line of a half-Ironman, and we raised $100,000 for earthquake relief. Eventually, we cut the ribbon on 40 homes for people who lost theirs in the earthquake.
How about you? What can you do for your part? You don’t have to do something big like building homes. You have to play a role, no matter where you are. Let everything you do have an impact, no matter how small or how “out there” it may seem.
It’s Your Turn to Step up
Q: So how can someone step up? What are some ways they can help others succeed?
NV: It takes courage to step up and contribute, but that’s my call to you.
I’m not asking businesses to single-handedly advance Hispanic prosperity. I’m just asking you to do your part.
Latino entrepreneurs now have the gift of leadership and influence. We go through a lot, and that takes courage. That’s the secret to good business, really: having the courage to do what’s right when it’s not easy. That’s the journey you won’t read in my professional bio. It took courage to come to the United States, where English was my second language. It took courage to go to college in a state where I didn’t know a soul. It took courage to start my business.
No matter whether you’re standing with others or by yourself, do the right thing. Give opportunities, share influence, and make the world a better place with your business.
As you move forward in your career, remember that success is never final. Failure isn’t fatal. Dig deep for your courage to be a better human, entrepreneur, and leader.