For Nina Vaca, chairman and chief executive officer of Dallas, Texas-based Pinnacle Group, entrepreneurial success has been about as accidental as competing in an Ironman triathlon. And with Vaca, nothing is accidental.
Vaca founded her firm in 1996 with $300 in a business checking account. Today, the $1 billion company operates in more than 40 states and Canada. The firm provides IT staffing and consulting, managed services and vendor management, payroll management services, and independent contractor compliance services to Fortune 500 and middle-market companies.
That success was built on two lessons Vaca learned from her parents, who owned a travel agency in Los Angeles, where she was processing bus passes by the time she was 10. “The first lesson is the importance of a strong work ethic. The second is that you work for everything you have. Nothing comes free.”
Those lessons had a profound effect on her formative years, as would the influence and example of her mother. “My mother arrived in the U.S. from Ecuador as a teenager with little to her name, was married in her 20s, lost a child in her 30s and was widowed in her 40s. She’s the most resilient women I’ve met in my life,” said Vaca, who was born in Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. “I believe that when you see yourself in a role model, it inspires you. It gives you the confidence that you can achieve what you want.”
THE OPPORTUNITY TO ACHIEVE
Growing up in humble beginnings, Vaca learned early on to be fearless and never let circumstances define her future. That fearlessness played out in 2007. Despite the company barely surviving the post- 9/11 recession, she made the risky decision to pursue an ambitious $100 million expansion that put the company on a phenomenal growth trajectory. Since 2005, Pinnacle Group has been among Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing 500/5000 U.S. companies. For the third consecutive year, Pinnacle Group has been ranked by the Women Presidents’ Organization among the top two of the country’s 50 fastest-growing women-owned businesses.
Pinnacle Group’s success has since catapulted the distinguished Texas State University alumna into the ranks of the country’s top Latino business leaders and attracted the attention of the White House and President Barack Obama. In 2010, she was elected chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), which represents 4.2 million Latino-owned businesses, and was the first woman named to the post in 15 years. She now serves as the chamber’s chairman emeritus and foundation chair. In 2014, President Obama appointed her as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, a role that has taken her across five continents to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.
OF LIVES TOUCHED
When Vaca’s mother had always counseled her not to measure wealth in dollars but by the number of lives she touched, she may not have envisioned Ironman as a way to do it. The drive to not only build businesses but empower people led the self-described “corporate athlete” to compete in July’s Ironman 70.3 in Manta, Ecuador and in last year’s “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlon. The events raised more than $200,000 to help Ecuadorian businesses and communities recover from a devastating 2016 earthquake that hit the country’s Pacific Coast. Putting people first is also at the heart of everything Pinnacle Group does. While not by design, women comprise 66 percent of the firm’s headquarters’ staff and serve in senior management positions, including general counsel, controller, chief diversity officer, human resources director, chief of staff and two of the company’s three management directors, and rank among Pinnacle Group’s top producers.
Because of the company’s rapid growth, many younger associates have opportunities they may not have found elsewhere, such as managing their own books of business or assuming other leadership roles within the company. However, what was intentional is the company’s focus on “family first.” Said Vaca, “I’m a mother of four running a company, so I understand when family needs call. Our ultimate driver has always been and will always be performance.”
Vaca, who sits on the boards of Comerica, Kohl’s Corporation and Cinemark Holdings, is an unwavering advocate for Latinas and recruiting them into leadership roles. She helped fund the USHCC Foundation’s “At the Table” business and leadership training program for women entrepreneurs. As only the second woman chairman of the chamber’s board in three decades, she blazed a trail for other women, who now make up half of USHCC’s directors.
“What I do at Pinnacle Group puts food on the table and feeds my family, but what I do in the community feeds my soul,” said Vaca, who also chairs the Million Women Mentors Entrepreneurship Council, which is focused on increasing the number of girls and young women in STEM programs and careers. “I’ve been blessed enough to be a promoter and advocate of and for women. And I continue to use my voice and story to bring mentorship to a worldwide audience. But there’s so much more to do.”