Latina trailblazer Nina Vaca resurrected her failing tech company and turned it into a major industry player.
It may not be the sexiest idea ever, as Nina Vaca is the first to admit, but the business of outsourcing tech staff has been incredibly lucrative.
As the child of immigrant parents who both started their own businesses in America, entrepreneurship runs deep through Vaca’s veins. She got her business chops – and passion for technology – while working at her father’s travel agency as a teenager.
But at 17, tragedy struck, and Vaca and her sister took over the business after her father was murdered in a burglary.
I knew entrepreneurship would be difficult, it would be like a mountain. But my father and mother always taught me to dream big.
“That year was probably the most pivotal in my life. I learned that it’s in your darkest moments where you find your most inner strength,” Vaca tells The Story Exchange.
Vaca ran the business for a year, before it was sold. She then attended university, becoming the first in her family to graduate.
By 25, Vaca had started Pinnacle Technical Resources from her living room floor with $300 in the bank.
Today, Pinnacle is part of the estimated $56 billion that Latina-owned business contribute to America’s economy each year. In fact, Hispanic-owned businesses are the fastest growing segment of American enterprise, with Latina entrepreneurs leading the way by starting companies at six times the national average.
“I knew entrepreneurship would be difficult, it would be like a mountain. But my father and mother always taught me to dream big,” Vaca tells The Story Exchange.
Vaca says she’s had many ‘lean in’ moments over the years but reinventing her business after the September 11th terrorist attacks brought her company to a standstill, is probably one of the biggest.
With a liquidation plan in place, business consultants had told Vaca it was time to “wrap it up” because corporations had stopped hiring contract labor, the very thing her business was focused on.
“It was a very difficult time in my life where my business was collapsing,” Vaca said. She also had two babies at home under 18 months, having delivered her second child just two days after the terrorist attacks.
But as someone who sees the glass as half full, Vaca dug deep and told herself that ‘failure is just not an option.’
She met with customers to find out what they were interested in buying if they were no longer interested in hiring contract workers. Turns out, in a fragile economy, they were interested in project-based work, looking for complete technology solutions rather than individual workers.
“We had to be innovative, we had to be creative, we had to listen to our customers and that’s what we did,” she says. Vaca recruited a number of new employees, including her siblings and her husband, and rescued her business by essentially reinventing it.
And the rest, as Vaca puts it, is history. A little more than a decade after almost closing Pinnacle, the company has grown to 4,000 employees across Canada and the U.S. This past year, Pinnacle diversified into the software industry by acquiring a Silicon Valley-based technology company.
A role model for Latinas
On a personal level, Vaca hopes that her story will help young women, especially young Latinas, see that they can come from nothing, overcome obstacles and thrive.
Her hope is that role models like herself can help reduce the alarmingly high rate of Latinas attempting suicide.
According to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13.5 percent of Hispanic female students in grades 9-12 admitted to attempting suicide, which is significantly higher than their black (8.8 per cent) and non-Hispanic (7.9 percent) peers.
“It is important for them to hear even at their young age, what their potential is and what they are capable of,” she says. “I happen to be Hispanic and I happen to be a woman. Therefore it gives me a great opportunity to go out in the community, share my story and inspire others.”
Nina Vaca — Founder and CEO, Pinnacle Technical Resources
Nina Vaca (NV): The staffing industry is not a sexy industry. Nobody goes to college and says, “I’m gonna run a staffing company.” But corporations will always need people, will always need talent.
CARD: Nina Vaca – Founder + CEO – Pinnacle Technical Resources – Texas – USA
NV: Pinnacle Technical Resources provides technology, IT contractors, to the Fortune 500. I started Pinnacle in 1996 from my apartment… floor. I was young, and single, and very confident.
CARD: Nina grew up in Los Angeles, one of five children. Her parents immigrated from Ecuador to California in the 1960s.
NV: My parents were in the travel industry. My sister and I were full-fledged travel agents by 15 and literally we’d call the airlines and make the reservation, everything was manual. One day my father brought a computer to the business. And I was fascinated. I didn’t have to stay on hold for an hour. And so I could easily log into a computer and make a reservation.
CARD: Nina saw that technology would streamline the industry. But her father still worked long hours on paperwork.
NV: In and around the travel industry there was a lot of robberies. You know, that’s how I lost my father. He was at the agency by himself and, you know… a thief came in that day. And… I don’t even think they meant… to kill him. By the time we got to the hospital… My family was devastated. Absolutely devastated.
CARD: Nina was 17, just out of high school. She and her older sister stepped in to run their father’s business.
NV: I learned every day that that is not the life that I wanted. And so I begged my mother to go to college. And my mother said, “Okay. Under one condition: you stay close to home.” And so, we sold the business and we moved to Texas.
CARD: Nina graduated from Texas State University in 1994, with a degree in communications and business.
NV: My interest in technology never faltered. In my first job out of college was with none other than a technology firm in New York City. I would’ve stayed with the company forever but the reality is I missed my family.
CARD: In 1996, Nina moved back to Texas and launched Pinnacle Technical Resources with $300. That same year, she met her husband, Jim Humrichouse.
NV: We were married in ‘97. And I married my best friend’s big brother.
CARD: Nina and Jim had four children in six years.
NV: The company, quite frankly, was doing fantastic. The marketplace was looking for IT talent. Then 9-11 hit and our country was devastated and so was our industry. We had come down to a liquidation plan. And, you know, all the consultants told me that it was time to wrap it up.
CARD: In an effort to save Pinnacle, Nina recruited her sister, brother, and husband. And she set out to reposition her company.
NV: When nobody’s purchasing what you have to sell, you have to reinvent yourself. So I visited one-on-one all my customers. If they’re not buying contract labor, what are they buying? They were buying projects. Fix-priced, deliverable-based IT solutions.
CARD: That year, Pinnacle bid on contracts for 40 projects and won just two. But they sent company earnings soaring to two million dollars.
NV: And then two million to four million and four million to 10 million and 10 million to 40, and 40 to 140, and the rest is history.
CARD: Pinnacle has grown to 4,000 employees across the U.S. and Canada.
NV: So we’ve come a long way from a living room floor. And where is Pinnacle going? We have set the proverbial stake on the ground and we’re going to a billion dollars in revenue. We have all the right people to do it, all the right momentum, and all the right clientele.
CARD: In 2010, Nina was elected chairman of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She tirelessly promotes Latina entrepreneurship.
NV: My father instilled an incredible level of confidence, not arrogance, confidence. And a dose of humility that I think really made me who I am today. And I think her knew back that there was a lot that I could accomplish.
Nina Vaca Video Credits:
Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Karin Kamp
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Associate Producer – Nusha Balyan
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Social Media Coordinator – Christina Wu
Music – Killer Tracks
Photos Courtesy of:
D. Robert Wolcheck
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