Growing up as the daughter of hardworking immigrants, Nina Vaca had a front-row seat to their entrepreneurship. By age seventeen, she was plugged into the family business, learning how to manage people and run a company.
Vaca founded Pinnacle Group in her living room when she was twenty-five. The IT staffing and workforce company, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, has a footprint in four continents and ten countries, more than 4,000 contractors in the US and Canada, and 200 team members at its global headquarters in Dallas, Texas.
“Your purpose is not something you find; it is revealed,” says Vaca, CEO of Pinnacle and the inaugural Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the City of Dallas. “The start of a company is the birth of a purpose. Pinnacle’s purpose is to connect people with opportunity. We do that for a living. We do that in the community, too.”
Vaca was appointed a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship by the White House in 2014, and, in that role, met with entrepreneurs from around the world. “Like me, they started businesses not for fame, not for money, but to lift their families up,” she says.
Vaca’s biggest learning was the need to change as a leader—and as a human being—throughout her entrepreneurial journey to meet the changing needs of her growing business. “The way you lead a $1 million business is not the same as you lead a $50 million or $100 million global entity. I’ve had to change to be the leader the company needed at its different growth stages.”
What It Takes to Succeed as an Entrepreneur
“Leadership requires courage,” says Vaca. “The courage to know what you’re good at and double down on it; the courage to get out there, start a company, and lead people.”
- Take care of yourself. “If you are going to have people around you and in your charge, and you’re serving them and making them your best, they deserve for you to be at your best.”
- Know who you are and what you’re good at. “Think about how much you can accomplish if you’re honest with yourself, if you know what your skills are.” Positivity is Vaca’s natural strength.
- A learning mindset is essential. “A business can only grow to the potential of the leader or leadership team,” Vaca says. “I’ve seen the growth of many businesses capped by the potential of the entrepreneur.” Human potential is the competitive differentiator.
- Know that nothing big is accomplished on your own. Surround yourself with people who complement you and people who will challenge you. “The cliché goes ‘surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are.’ But do you really do that? Clichés are fun to say but really hard to do. Have the humility to be challenged.”
- Develop incredible trust. Vaca defines that as the ability to paint a vision bigger than yourself and create trust by role-modeling. “Putting yourself last and your people first is the responsibility of the leader in creating that environment. At Pinnacle, we have fierce trust in each other.”
Getting Serious about Diversity
“I forget who said this: ‘Do not mistake what is rare with what is new,’” says Vaca. While the topic of diversity is “new” and in vogue, diversity has always been a Pinnacle value. Sixty percent of headquarters staff are women, and 48 percent are minorities.
“You can be sincere about diversity, and you can be serious. But you have to be both to take action,” says Vaca. She’d like to see more businesses move beyond sincerity—talking about diversity and putting it on a website—to being serious. “Being serious about diversity means putting someone in charge of it, optimizing it, and measuring it: are we moving the needle forward? As with anything, achievement is a long game of consistency and discipline.”
Vaca views herself not as a Latina leader but as a leader who happens to be a woman and a Latina. “I’m an entrepreneur, period. Segmenting is an approach; it’s just not mine. I can’t make a living out of being Hispanic!”
She’s often been “the only” in the room, as in the only Hispanic or the only woman. “Ask yourself, Is that happening to you or happening for you?” The latter is a creator mindset. “I will always choose the creator mindset. If I am the only Latina in the room, then what an incredible opportunity to educate people about my community!”
Solving and Managing Complex Problems
“Each time we graduate to more business success, we earn the right to solve a more complex problem. After 9/11, we were nearly out of business,” she recalls. “Today’s complex problem to solve for clients is the scarcity of IT resources and the desire of every major Fortune 500 for diverse IT staff.”
Competition for talent is fierce. Pinnacle focuses on the details and on educating corporations about hiring speed, remote work preferences, and benefits.
There’s a lot of uncertainty, including divisiveness, inflation, and the continuing impact of COVID on the country. “These challenges will continue to linger for some time, I think. It’s how we react to these challenges that will make the difference.”
Vaca sees “a worldview problem, not a political problem” on divisiveness. “It’s not a problem to resolve, it’s a challenge to manage. Everyone has light side and a shadow side. So do our worldviews. We tend to look at the shadow side and forget about the light.”
Vaca prefers seeking higher ground versus common ground. “When you seek common ground, no one’s happy with a watered-down solution. Higher ground means ‘I don’t agree with you, but I understand you and I will learn both the light and shadow side of your worldview’,” she says.
The ability to befriend people who don’t think like you is an incredible skill to have in business and in life, says Vaca. “We have the opportunity to seek higher ground, to get curious about light and shadow of worldviews, and understand people better.”
To hear the full conversation between DSA President Joe Mariano and Pinnacle CEO Nina Vaca, log in to The Direct Entrepreneur series here.