For Nina Vaca, Business Is a Path Community Leadership
Nina Vaca is the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Pinnacle Group, an award-winning workforce solutions company. She started the business out of her one-bedroom apartment 23 years ago, and her two decades of dynamic leadership have grown the company from a niche IT services firm to the workforce solutions powerhouse that it is today. Providing industry-leading workforce solutions and high-end IT services to iconic global brands, the company has been named the fastest-growing female-led business in the United States in 2015 and 2018.
Pinnacle Group brings together decades of experience and expertise to improve the quality of service, reduce risk, and achieve program success for its clients. As such, the company and Vaca have received several awards for their dedication over the years, including the MetLife Diverse Supplier Opportunity Award and the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. In addition to being named one of the Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies in the U.S., Vaca was named 2018 Woman of the Year at the 11th Annual Tribute to the Hispanic Woman by Solo Mujeres Magazine.
Vaca is a committed civic leader and philanthropist. She advocates passionately for women and entrepreneurs and works to advance girls and women in STEM fields. She was also appointed a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE) in 2014.
Vaca is an avid athlete and has participated in numerous races including the 120-mile Rocky Mountain Triple Bypass, the New York Marathon, and the Ironman 70.3 in Manta, Ecuador. She, her husband, and their four children live in Dallas, Texas.
Please tell us about yourself.
I come from a big entrepreneurial family. My mother and father immigrated from Quito, Ecuador, to Los Angeles, California. Like most immigrants, they followed the American Dream and became entrepreneurs shortly after coming to the U.S. My mother was a civic leader who was heavily involved in her community. It was her community involvement and her giving back that have pushed me to pursue the things that I did. As such, I have dedicated my entire life primarily to entrepreneurship and a commitment to my community.
What are some things you have learned from your parents?
My parents taught me a lot about how to handle failure, which is crucial for entrepreneurship. Having grown up in an immigrant family, I quickly learned that failure is not really an option and that I must get back up every time I fall. When I was young, I watched my parents lose their homes and have their cars repossessed. We were always moving and changing neighborhoods. And it was this back and forth that really prepared me for the life of an entrepreneur.
Could you describe your involvement in your father’s travel agency business a bit more and how technology transformed it?
My father founded a travel agency, and my sister and I worked for him very early on. We originally sold handwritten tickets, which required keeping a ticket stock of blank airline tickets. That all changed when my father bought a Sabre dumb-terminal, our very first computer that completely revolutionized the way the business operated. Suddenly, everything was handled electronically and went much faster. Seeing a computer at the age of 15 was my first taste of technology. It sparked my curiosity and helped me gain a better understanding of how it can transform a business.
On the other hand, I also witnessed the impact that a lack of access to capital can have on the companies of small business owners. My father only had enough capital to purchase a computer but not a laser printer, which he planned to buy later.
The travel agency brought incredible opportunity into your family’s life but also an unbelievable tragedy. Can you tell us about that?
My father had been storing all of the valuable blank tickets in the back of the store. When I was 17, he was robbed and killed in his travel agency. His death left my family wholly devastated. He left behind five children and no life insurance or retirement savings. I had just graduated from high school, and instead of going to college, my sister and I decided to run the business together. However, we realized very quickly that to get ahead fast and take care of the family properly, one of us would have to go to college. My sister and I agreed that I would be the one to go. My mother sold the business and, together with my sister, put me through school. I would not have a college education had it not been for the two of them.
At the time you decided to go to college, your life story was very different from those of your classmates. How did that affect your college experience?
I started college with a different mindset and perspective. It took a lot of determination and sacrifice on my part and from my family to make it possible. A college education was my opportunity to do something that would not only benefit me but my entire family. I took it seriously and applied myself diligently. There was no room for second chances. I always looked five to 10 years ahead, and the same was true when I began college. I was in it for the long haul from the very beginning. I was determined to graduate, and I knew I could not afford to make any mistakes.
When and how did you decide to start your own business?
After graduating from college, I moved to New York to work in IT. My mother tried to convince me not to move, but I knew I had to get my education so that I could eventually help my family. Once I was stable and grounded, I would go back to take care of them again.
My time in New York was educational, and it built up my confidence more. I was one of about 20 new hires, and only half of us remained after the training. We had to work long hours, and I remember that I was the first one there and the last one to leave. This was before the internet really existed. My curiosity and boldness quickly caught the eye of the chairman. At the time, he was spinning off a division of the company, and since I had demonstrated my hard work and dedication, he reached out to me to see if I would take that on. After a short time in New York, I moved back to Dallas to work for a tech company and, ultimately, to be closer to my family. I just decided it was time to go home and have a fresh start.
At the time, corporations were seeking IT consultants and people who were non-employees of the company whom they would bring on as consultants and pay hundreds of dollars per hour. I saw the opportunity and the demand for talent in IT. I coupled that with confidence, overcame the barriers, and worked hard to be successful. I was never afraid of hard work, and that goes back to my upbringing. Even today, as a CEO, I will never ask people to do anything that I am not willing to do myself.
How did you expand your business from a one-bedroom apartment to a high-rise in Dallas?
I was 25 at the time and did not have a lot of money other than my business credit account. I started a company in the service industry. Logistically speaking, that meant that there was no inventory. I only had my credit line and my computer. I would cold-call companies and offer them my services. I would focus on more prominent firms because I knew that the larger the company was, the more it would need my services. My business became very successful, and six months later, I onboarded my sister, who moved from Houston to help me make this into a family business.
What was that vision that you believed in so fiercely that you were willing to not only dive in yourself but also convince your sister to dive in with you?
Three main things pushed me forward and still keep me going today. The first was my conviction that with a college degree, I was going to be an entrepreneur. The second was my absolute certainty that technology would continue to grow and that it would only push us forward in our business and within our industry. The third revolved around my burning desire to build a family business and, ultimately, help my family.
How did the events of September 11, 2001, affect your business?
That year we almost went out of business, and it was one of the hardest years of my life. Before that, the business had been going well. I got married in January 1999 and had my first child the next year. By September 2001, I was pregnant with my second child. We were also bringing in several million dollars in revenue, and we had consultants at brand-name companies. I was almost nine months pregnant with my daughter — who was born two days later — when 9/11 happened, and everything changed.
September 11 was devastating for the company. At that time, we had several outside consultants, I had already brought on my sister, and my brother was a traveling consultant. The outside consultants were all advising me to close the business. There was a liquidation plan in place, and I was advised to fire someone within 24 hours. I had to choose between two people, and since my sister was off-limits, I fired myself and stopped taking a salary.
At that point, I began contacting my clients and speaking with them to get a better understanding of the products that they were looking to buy. I realized quickly that they were not buying contingent labor. What they were looking for were fixed-price deliverable-based IT solutions. I changed my business accordingly to meet those needs immediately, and it made all the difference in the world. Pinnacle really took off and started growing from that point forward. We were much smaller, so I could take bigger risks. It was a bumpy road, and we took many hits, but I just continued getting back up again until we had something profound.
The company you started in a small, one-bedroom apartment has been valued at over a billion dollars. Can you comment on that?
We just kept moving our goal higher and higher. I remember wanting to be a $10 million company, and when we achieved that, we started aiming for $50 million. Following that, I began to wonder whether we could hit the $100 million mark. We kept moving our goal until that proverbial billion-dollar mark in revenue was reached.
A company that I initially started as a way to help my family, had quickly evolved into so much more. For me, it was never really about the size or the revenue as much as it was about Pinnacle’s impact. We now have a platform, and I feel like all of the things that I have seen and done can serve an operational purpose and open doors for others. We have helped a lot of people achieve their American Dream, and that is the most crucial aspect of my business for me.
How do you manage to be the sole owner of your company and still have enough capital to keep it going?
I basically take all of the profits and put them right back into the business; this takes tremendous amounts of discipline. At one point, I stopped taking a salary so that I could put our company – and, most importantly, our people – first. When your team realizes that, they will appreciate the investment and stick with you through thick and thin. I have also been very frugal with both myself and my family. Once you realize that you are in this for the long haul, people will see your efforts and the sacrifices that you are willing to make. By saving and investing back into the business, we’ve been able to sustain and grow without outside investments. We’re not beholden to anyone but ourselves and our clients, which is incredibly freeing when trying to build and sustain a business.
Tell me about a difficult time in your life. How did you overcome it?
My appendix exploded one night in 2014, and an appendectomy was not an option for me. It was life-threatening, as it was too infected, so I had to inject myself with liquid antibiotics for an entire month. My mother and husband took care of me, as I was very weak. I had hit rock bottom and had to start all over again. This was especially hard because I am a triathlete. I like to swim, bike, and run – preferably all in the same hour! I had always dreamt of racing and crossing the finish line again. It took two years of hard work and discipline to train and prepare, but I participated in one of the most iconic races, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. I swam from Alcatraz Island all the way to shore and then biked and ran, and eventually crossed the finish line.
I like to tell this story because tragedies are all the same, regardless of whether they are in business lives, our personal lives, or even within us. What it comes down to is this: when you are down, you have to decide whether you want to stay down or whether you are going to gather your courage and get back up. For me, it is the latter. I just do not know any other way.
What is your best advice for Latina entrepreneurs?
The opportunities for Latina entrepreneurs – and really any entrepreneur – are absolutely fantastic. There are approximately four million Hispanic-owned businesses in this country, generating almost a billion dollars for the U.S. economy. Also, the fastest-growing sector of small businesses is Latina-owned. In fact, 7 out of 10 Hispanic businesses are being run by Latinas.
Given those statistics, as well as the well-known growth of the Hispanic community and the growth of small businesses, one cannot help but see the vast potential. I cannot foresee precisely how the industry will evolve and exactly how difficult it will be, but I know that the challenges will continue to be significant. However, if you are focused on the incredible opportunity and are willing to work hard and be bold, you will ensure your success as an entrepreneur.
What do you want to do next?
My work at Pinnacle is far from done. I still have a long way to go in my career as an entrepreneur and as a leader. One of them is our global expansion, as my company operates in 15 countries, and we look to reach even more countries in the future. I know that I will always be an ambassador to my community, and my goal is to continue to serve my community in any way I can.