06 May Nina Vaca’s “Crazy Good” Vision For Achieving Business Success
Guest Contributor: Bri Crow
Minutes after stepping off the stage from delivering an opening address for the Women Of Innovation Summit, as part of Dallas Startup Week, I sat down with Nina Vaca, the Founder and CEO of Pinnacle Group. The company was founded here in Dallas and recently announced some pretty big news – an official international expansion into Latin America.
The crowd, mostly made up of businesswomen, was electric after her talk. There was a noticeable, heightened level of energy in the room and as soon as we got to chatting, it was clear that her contagious spirit was not just reserved for the stage, but something that permeated her everyday business.
Vaca’s game-changing leadership over the past 22 years has not only taken her company from a niche IT services firm to the workforce solutions powerhouse it is today, but it has also positioned her as one of the nation’s most influential entrepreneurs and powerhouse thought leaders. Locally, she is revered as a Texas business icon and certifiable badass.
When it comes to her inspiration-inducing story of resiliency and being “crazy good,” it only feels right to share some of Vaca’s valuable approaches to entrepreneurship and the decision-making skills that have empowered her own career.
1.) “Your ability to adapt and embrace change is critical.”
As a first-generation college graduate from an immigrant (and entrepreneurial) family, with five siblings and a mother who tragically became a single parent after a fatal act of violence, Nina was forced to learn the value of resiliency early.
Resiliency is a word likely popping up on your social feeds more and more as of late and for good reason – one cannot be a successful business owner today without the capacity to adapt and improvise.
Shortly after college, she found herself visiting New York for the first time to complete a seven-hour interview for a job she wasn’t even clear about its responsibilities (…which she got and took. Hey, we’ve all been there, right?). While there, she became a student of the technology industry and it’s need to be connected with quality talent.
Her mother was the visionary behind the family’s move to Dallas, which triggered Vaca’s relocation from New York to the DFW metroplex. Six months after arriving, she started the Pinnacle Group from her apartment floor with an overpriced Dell computer purchased on credit, and a $300 bank deposit. It was then when her resiliency skills came in to play.
2.) “You’re more than just your own business; you are part of an army of women that are, quite frankly, making a huge mark in this country.”
Reflecting back on the early stages of her business journey, Vaca wishes she had leveraged more of the vast resources available to small businesses.
For all founders, it’s important to realize you’re not alone in it – there are 30.2 million other small business owners who together, employ just under half of the American population. Any challenge that you’re currently facing has been experienced or felt by one of your peers throughout their journey as well. Shared experience builds community.
Vaca knows what self-doubt is like, but she was able to quickly turn from “Am I just a girl in an apartment trying to make this work?” to, “I am a part of a force of nature that is called the small business engine.” In making this mindshift, she also became a firm believer in the importance of having an advisory board…for your life. “There’s something to be said for surrounding yourself with wisdom.”
She emphasized just how powerful the small to medium size business ecosystem is, especially when it comes to female founders, and how important it is to have an active and supportive community.
3.) “My favorite thing is to be underestimated.”
To this day, Pinnacle Group’s success was born from $300 and 100% bootstrapped self-funding. Vaca continues to re-invest in the business.
In the early days however, she was often overlooked, ignored or underestimated. So she started showing up authentically with potential clients, and winning big. “I’m just starting out but if you give me a chance, I won’t let you down. I will do everything I can to make you look good and I will solve your problem if you give me this chance.”
You’ve likely heard it, but Vaca wants you to really hear it, “People buy into your passion. If you’re not willing to put your own skin in the game, why should they?”
This approach essentially provided her with a “seed round” level client, which enabled her to start putting her own money back in to the business.
It wasn’t long after that though, that the tragedy of 9/11 happened and she was forced to put a liquidation plan in place. Instead of looking to reduce her workforce though, she chose to, not only avoid giving up a piece of the business, but to also stop taking a salary herself and faced the challenge head on. To do so, she started approaching her clients differently, again.
“The industry was there and we just needed to figure out the right recipe.”
4.) “Trust your gut and be crazy good.”
It’s 2001 and the economy tanks and your clients stop buying – what do you do? Vaca went to a mentor and simply asked, “If you’re not buying time and materials [i.e. staffing] then what are you buying? Give me a chance to compete.” The answer was one she took back to her team knowing they would likely think she was crazy. “We need a division focused on fixed-priced, deliverable-based IT solutions!” In essence, staffing in bulk.
So she trusted her gut, and they figured out a way to package their services differently in order to fit the pricing model of their ideal clients. Now, it’s not something she recommends, but it was more about tenacity and resiliency to stay afloat at the time. Each time they lost out on an RFP, she’d go back with finesse to get feedback, and over time showed them she was willing to adapt and change. Of the 46 RFP’s they went after (one of which required a 3-day turn around and an all-nighter with Taco Bell and the team)…they only won two. But those two were big indicators for potential.
By the same token, one of her advisors had recommended she not pursue an enterprise client due to seeing a lack of ROI for the hefty insurance policy that they were requiring for the Pinnacle Group purchase.
As you may expect by now…Vaca saw it as a valuable investment anyway and four years later won a $100 million dollar piece of business from that same company, which was the catalyst for the Pinnacle Group going national.
Rather than sit back comfortably, as Vaca said, “It’s in the good times that you’ve got to prepare for the bad times” so she and the team continued to re-invest in the business and maintained a philosophy of forward thinking.
5.) “Entrepreneurship is the mindset that there’s always a future.”
Taking calculated risks can serve you well. For Vaca, it’s never been about selling the business off or making a quick buck…”it’s been about legacy. It’s been about pushing every glass ceiling. Focusing on the long game.”
But even if you decide to take capital and/or choose to take a lucrative or agreeable buyout, she advises to “trust your gut and know which way is right for you.” Knowing early on what your version of success looks like is key.
The Pinnacle Group’s new global expansion, “represents the last frontier of entrepreneurship. From an apartment floor, to a local building, then regional company, to being nationwide and now international…so many countries!” Vaca states excitedly.
The Pinnacle Group is also investing heavily in its Talent Communities platform that provides companies an opportunity to leverage their individual brands in order to build a private ‘talent cloud’ of candidates.
As Vaca states, “The platform is not going to replace staffing, but it’s going to take a bite out of it. Bet on the future; the stable bread and butter is always going to be there. If we’re not constantly challenging and being innovative, then we’re going to be left behind.”
6.) “Impress me with what you’re doing for others.”
Vaca’s mother instilled in her the importance of helping others to build their own legacy. “Women start businesses to help their families. It’s not so much of a problem as starting, as it is scaling the business.”
As a leader, she talked about how, “ The CEO title is prestigious, but the most important hat you’ll wear is your recruiter hat” when it comes to attracting quality talent and having them invested in your mission as a company.
Great examples of her living this truth are Ace Tovar, who has been employed with the Pinnacle Group for 14 years and started at the front desk and is now a global executive for their Latin America expansion and Erin Stewart, a Columbia Law graduate who stepped away from the industry to start and raise her family of three kids, and then joined the company and is now General Counsel.
Diversity and inclusion play an important role in building a legacy for your company. The Pinnacle Group is currently comprised of 63% women (in some of the most prominent, strategic and top producing positions), 48% minority professionals and 15 countries are represented.
Thinking global is crucial too. “For leaders across industries, it’s critical to understand foreign policy and the role we play in the international community – both as Americans and as citizens of the world,” Vaca emphatically states.
In addition to her daily leadership role with the Pinnacle Group and raising two daughters who already have impressive accomplishments under their belt, Vaca was recently appointed to the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious group of the nation’s most respected leaders in government, business, journalism, education and beyond, which provides nonpartisan foreign policy analysis. She also just recently returned from a trip to Ecuador where she helped communities recover from an earthquake – adding to her many charitable contributions and volunteer work.