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Her American Dream: How Nina Vaca turned $300 into a billion-dollar company

The CEO of the Pinnacle Group, chats with Mika Brzezinski about her journey, the importance of finding your “crazy good,” her career in her 50s and more.
Nina Vaca, chairperson and CEO of Pinnacle Group.
Nina Vaca, chairperson and CEO of Pinnacle Group.Courtesy of Pinnacle Group.

Nina Vaca knows what it’s like to turn hardship into opportunity.

Vaca founded the Pinnacle Group with just $300 when she was just 25 years old. Her one-woman workforce solutions firm has since blossomed into a billion dollar company in 10 countries. The Pinnacle Group has also been named one of the fastest growing women-owned business in the country.

The road to get there, however, was fraught with challenges.

Vaca, who was born in Quito, Equador, came from humble beginnings and was one of six children. Her family immigrated to Los Angeles in search of better opportunity. Her parents juggled several jobs and struggled financially, and at the age of 17, her father was killed during a robbery at the travel agency he owned.

Vaca’s parents, however, never shied away from sharing their struggles. And while it wasn’t easy for Vaca, she attributes their honesty to her own success today.

“Some of the best lessons I learned at a very early age,” Vaca recently told Know Your Value’s Mika Brzezinski. “I learned what a repossession is … I learned what a foreclosure is, how we had to leave our homes. And so, for me, watching my parents suffer was one of my biggest life lessons …”

Nina Vaca with her father, Hernan Vaca.
Nina Vaca with her father, Hernan Vaca.Courtesy of Nina Vaca.

Those difficult experiences also taught her about resiliency, said Vaca, 50. “It taught me a lot about learning through pain. It taught me about failure in life … My parents would always find a way to pick themselves back up and they referred to those challenges as opportunities. So from a very young age, my parents were teaching me. You dust yourself off, get back up and you keep moving.”

Vaca chatted with Brzezinski about her journey, the importance of finding your “crazy good,” her career in her 50s and beyond and more.

Below is their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Brzezinski: You’ve said in the past that it’s OK to let kids see their parents suffer. I agree. I think parents just let them see a little bit, but you're talking about everything. You can't have joy without pain. You can't really know what life is unless you've walked through it with people.

Tell me about your parents, your desire to go to college and when you moved to Texas. It sounds like it was fairly tough time in your life.

Vaca: It was a very challenging time … My mother and father left Quito, Ecuador and were a typical immigrant family. My mother gave birth to six children, five are living today. My father worked three jobs … It's a classic story, but not a unique story … My parents ended up finding the answer to their American dream through entrepreneurship. So eventually, they started a business, and that’s really what gave us some stability.

… We had several other businesses that failed, but he had this travel agency business. My father had the foresight to get a computer, I mean, this was in the late 80s … I was 15, and I was able to see what technology can do to a business, because my father's business [had previously been] a manual business.

I grew up in the business. I started working in it since I was 10 years old, I was a certified travel agent by the time I was 15. I mean, I was calling airlines, selling tickets, creating tickets, making tickets. So, I grew up very quickly.

The inside of the travel agency Nina Vaca's family owned.
The inside of the travel agency Nina Vaca's family owned.Courtesy of Nina Vaca.

… I would always complain to my parents. “Why do I have to write the checks? Why do I have to do these things?” … I had this victim mentality of, "why are you doing this to me?" But they weren't doing it to me. They were doing it for me.

…When I was 17, my father, I think you know this story, and I don't want to take too much time on it, but my father was murdered [during a robbery at the travel agency].

And so, my decision to go to college was based on the fact that I had to run his small businesses when he died. And that was a very challenging time in my life because I was doing his job. I wanted a better future. I wanted a better life … College was the way that I would be able to help my family the most, that was the vehicle in which to do it … I ended up at a beautiful little state college called Texas State University, which was Southwest Texas State back then. I'm proud today to be a distinguished alumni of that university …

Brzezinski: Your story is incredible. You've come a long way. And you’ve said in the past, "the harder I work, the luckier I get." Tell me about that mentality.

Vaca: I understand the value of hard work … I would roll up my sleeves and do it myself. I have a servant mentality about leadership. I consider myself a lifelong student of leadership, because my father had these entrepreneurship ventures. My mother has been a civic leader and an entrepreneur.. She really taught me a lot about serving the community, remembering where you came from and advocating for those who cannot …

Brzezinski: Tell me your ethos of what you call “crazy good.”

Vaca: Oftentimes, I found with myself and with other women that I've mentored or talked to ... We tend to focus on what we don't bring to the table and as opposed to what we do bring to the table.

… We've all heard the stories about when a woman applies for a job, she hits every single one of the criteria. A man applies for the job, even if he hits only one or two … I spent a lot of my earlier days in my career [focusing] on the things that I wasn't good at … I realized that I can do that, but I shouldn't spend 100 percent of my time doing that.

I should spend 10 percent of my time doing that and 90 percent of my time double downing on what I'm really good at. Honing in on that expertise of my natural abilities and then being crazy good at that and building a reputation around what I'm really good at. Because if you spend your day focused on your natural strengths, and really honing in on that craft, day after day being so damn good at it. Crazy good. Then you will build a reputation for yourself…

Brzezinski: I love this, because I come from a family of foreign policy experts. My dad was a national security advisor. Both of my brothers got into Ivy League schools. They know multiple languages. And everyone kept putting me on that track, even though it wasn’t for me. I had to go against what the entire environment was telling me and find what it is that I loved and that I was good at. I had to do the same thing that you're talking about. I’ve learned to sign up for the thing that you're crazy good at, focus on it and don't let other people tell you what you should be.

Vaca: You are crazy good at what you do, you're creating an example of it.

Brzezinski. You turned 50 this past year. Happy birthday to you. As you may know, Know Your Value and Forbes released our 50 Over 50 list this year. It celebrates women over the age of 50 who have achieved significant success later in the life, often by overcoming formidable odds or barriers.

It's like all of a sudden we have arrived. I'm just wondering in your younger years, in your 20s and 30s, when you were struggling through college, getting the first or second job, planning your career, did you ever envision your career after the age of 50?

Vaca: … Ever since I turned 50, I feel like I'm less reactive and more conscious. And I feel like it's a maturity thing. I feel I spent so much of my 20s and 30s saying, “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” because I had FOMO. Now I'm more thoughtful. I say "no" more and I don't have FOMO anymore. I have JOMO, the joy of missing out.

I see myself no longer as a player, but I see myself as a coach. I coach my management team. I coach my children. I'm constantly coaching my executives. And that frame of just consciousness that comes with tenure, kids… I had four children in six years, I was running a fast-growing business. I was drinking out of a fire hose for decades. So it's hard to become conscious and aware when you're drinking out of a fire hose. And so you have to force yourself to create that consciousness and that awareness to give you choice. If not, you're only doing habitual stuff.