"The people in our firm don't view me as the only entrepreneur, they view themselves as the entrepreneur."
Nina Vaca's story is a textbook one, literally. In the college text, Understanding Business (McGraw Hill) a recounting of the rise of Pinnacle - an information technology service provider for fortune 500 companies, which she founded in 1996 at the age of 25 - opens the chapter on entrepreneurship, and with good reason. Her company's growth has been meteoric, already boasting $200 million in revenues, 3,000 consultants across the United States and Canada, and multitudes of awards and recognitions. Her parents (who emigrated from Guatamala to Los Angeles) were both entrepreneurs, and just as entrepreneurship is in her blood, Vaca has kept it at the heart of her company.
Color Magazine: What kind of values did your parents instill in you that helped you in your career?
Nina Vaca: Among many values, the ones that stood out were the value of faith and the value of perseverance. Those are the two that stand out in my mind, at least right now. Watching them be entrepreneurs I learned about the hard work and commitment and perseverance that it really takes. Not all businesses succeed. There were peaks and valleys within their entrepreneurial ventures, and I got the opportunity to witness them all. I think what that taught me was very profound.
CM: What's written in the section about you in the McGraw Hill textbook Understanding Business?
NV: It's the Pinnacle story. It talks about how I got started, what the company does and what we've achieved. It's a beautiful write-up on the company and the people in it. That was really just an honor, to have our story as an example taught in universities nationwide.
CM: What made your story textbook worthy?
NV: I think what the publishers liked was that Pinnacle started from basically nothing. It started with a vision and a commitment to excellence, and it became a leader in its industry by the power of surrounding yourself with the right people. It's just a real depiction of entrepreneurship: starting from nothing and getting to be one of the most recognized companies in the industry.
CM: Has being a woman in the largely male industry of information technology affected you and your business?
NV: It really hasn't. I'm one of these people, my father taught me a long time ago, let people judge you for your true potential and whether you are a man or a woman, a small business is a small business. I don't think being a woman or an Hispanic has limited me in any capacity. I have to see myself as equal, and I have conducted myself in that manner.
CM: Has it given you advantages?
NV: I think being a minority-owned business there are some advantages in terms of visibility, but in the end you have to deliver. I wouldn't say advantage, it's opened some doors. But then you have to have the ability and the value to actually walk through the door and actually attain the business. I don't believe I've been slighted by my race, and I operate that way. Everything I do I just commit to excellence and let that speak for me, as opposed to anything else.
CM: Of the numerous awards you and your company have received, is there one that sticks out?
NV: I'm really proud of every single one of them, because they all mark a milestone in the company's history - my first award and my last award and everything in between. If I had to pick one, I would highlight the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year , and the reason is because I share that award with a lot of household names. People like Michael Dell, Herb Kelleher [co-founder Southwest Airlines], like Kathleen Mason, she runs Tuesday Morning. The Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year is the most coveted business award you can achieve, and it's not based on anything else other than business excellence. The fact that I can share those awards with household names is a privilege and an honor.
CM: You started your business at a young age and there must have been some fears and doubts in your mind. Can you talk about overcoming them?
NV: The biggest fear is always that things aren't going to work out. [Laughs.] But I don't know that I ever had any doubts. I go back to my upbringing. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I didn't go into this entrepreneurial venture with my eyes closed; I brought my entire childhood of watching my parents persevere. So I knew there were going to be obstacles. I knew that there were going to be rough times. I knew that there would be challenges. Knowing that ahead of time really prepared me, mentally, for the entrepreneurial venture.
CM: Starting out, and as you continued, you must have needed support. Who do you go to and how did you create that support structure?
NV: Absolutely, no one does anything on their own. I have been surrounded by people who genuinely want to see me succeed. And I have actually positioned myself to be surrounded by people who want to watch me succeed. I leveraged my family, in particular, my mother. My brothers and sisters, my husband has played a very big role, and a lot of mentors. I have had a lot of wonderful business mentors in my life and people who want to see me succeed.
CM: Why serve as chairman of the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce [USHCC]? How are you delivering on their mission?
NV: The reason I'm involved with the USHCC is really to help my community. It's an opportunity to leverage my leadership skills and help the organization grow. My goal is to help do my part in turning that organization into an institution. The way that we have been able to do that so far - I've only been in office since December and we've already changed history. We've added new Hispanic business enterprise memberships, we've added new programs and services. We've added a new training university sponsored by Notre Dame, who trains the chambers of commerce throughout the country, that helps and affects 3.1 million Hispanic-owned businesses. Being the chair of USHCC really provides me that opportunity to help others reach new heights within their business. I'm pleased to have a great board and a wonderful president who help me execute that mission.
CM: What specific challenges do Latino businesses face in America?
NV: Well I think the challenges, again, are the same challenges for businesses in general. The USHCC advocates for businesses and what is good for businesses to grow. Our goal is to create wealth in the Hispanic community via entrepreneurship. We're really business focused. We address business issues that affect any and all small businesses, some may be particular to the Hispanic community, but mostly it's anything that would affect small business in general. The USHCC is looking to grow prosperity for all Americans, because they're American businesses that we advocate on behalf of, and there's 3.1 million of them across the country.
CM: Why sit on the boards of Kohl's Corp and Comerica Inc.? What opportunities does that provide?
NV: I think it provides two opportunities, a personal one and a community one, if you look at it that way. It's an opportunity to utilize my leadership to help guide and have input to these major corporations, and there's a lot of personal growth in that. But, moreover, it provides an opportunity to create a path for others to follow. I am one of the few - I shouldn't say few - one of the small percentage of Hispanics who serve on corporate boards. So in that context, I'm proud to serve as one of them and lay the foundation to follow.
NV: Clearly, you are very busy. How do you make time for your personal life?
CM: What personal life? [Laughs.] You know when things are important to you, you make the time. Spending family time is important to me, so I make time for it. In fact, when you and I are done, we are going to go bike riding. It's about time management. I really, really enjoy swimming, biking and running, preferably in the same hour - I'm a triathlete. So, I wake up at the crack of dawn and train. If you are committed to it and, it's important to you, then you find the time to do it. Sometimes its 5:30 in the morning, but I'm committed to that. I actually just ran my first marathon in November, the ING New York City Marathon.
CM: Your company's rise seems to have been both fast and graceful. What were the key strategies to help you grow successfully and steadily?
NV: It's not a complex strategy, it's a very simple one. That is to be best in class. The second is to surround yourself with the right people. Whether you are in the vendor management business or the manufacturing business, or any other business for that matter, it's people who run organizations. As a services organization, people are a critical part of the organization. So getting the right people on the bus, getting the right people in the right leadership roles, has been the secret to our success, and then having all those people commit to being the best in class.
We have an ambience in our office of entrepreneurship. The people in our firm don't view me as the only entrepreneur, they view themselves as the entrepreneur. So the ability to create a business by embracing entrepreneurship and having everyone show off their entrepreneurial talents, I think is what has really made Pinnacle very successful in the marketplace.
CM: When you look back on creating Pinnacle, would you have done anything differently?
NV: I'm one of those people who believes that who I am today is directly related to everything that has happened to me. So, I'm going to say no, because everything that has happened to me, both positive and negative, has been a building block or a milestone in our success. To change anything might be changing the outcome and the outcome to me is, wow, there's days where it's almost surreal.