Nina Vaca’s Pinnacle
Entrepreneurship runs in this Latina’s veins, and she’s ridden it to the top of the U.S. tech industry.
When thinking back on the journey of Pinnacle Group Founder, Chairperson and CEO Nina Vaca — one of founding and growing one of the largest Latino-owned companies in U.S. — it’s really not all that surprising.
That’s not to diminish the accomplishments of one of the tech industry’s only Latina leaders, but entrepreneurship courses through her veins. It’s in her family, and Vaca has taken it to levels never imagined by previous generations of entrepreneurs.
According to her, she grew up the black sheep of seven children, born to immigrant parents from Ecuador that settled in Los Angeles, California.
Much like Vaca would do with Pinnacle when arriving in the faraway land of Texas two decades later, her parents set up shop with a travel agency that would support the soon-to-be family.
The work, and the fact that extended family still remained in Ecuador, meant Vaca’s mother often traveled back and forth between there and the U.S., especially when pregnant with Nina.
As a result, Vaca is the only one of her siblings technically born outside the U.S.
“I felt very different as I was growing up,” she said, “because everybody had a blue passport and I didn’t when I was old enough to know what a passport was.”
Despite being born there, Vaca’s earliest memory is not of Ecuador, but of starting kindergarten in Los Angeles. Her connection to the country would come via her grandmother, whom she spent significant time with growing up as her parents jump started the travel agency, among other endeavors.
“She taught me to be proud of where you come from,” said Vaca. “To be proud of my differences, not see them as a negative, but see them as a positive.”
Those lessons were also passed down to her mother, who in addition to being an entrepreneur, was also a civic leader in the community.
At the time, the Ecuadorian population in California was small, and Vaca’s mother made it her mission to connect its members with familiar culture. Much later, the effort led her to being named an honorary consular officer for Ecuador in the U.S.
“I have watched my mother, kind of, give back to the community my entire life,” said Vaca.
At age 10, Vaca would also start helping her parents at the travel agency they founded.
She called the experience “priceless” because not only did she see early the importance of hard work and discipline, but also the key role technology would play across all industries.
Her father was an early adopter of said technology, and took out a loan to purchase a Sabre travel terminal for the operation.
“I got to witness firsthand the transformation that technology could have in a business,” said Vaca.
In the case of the travel industry, everything went from analog pen and paper to computer-generated.
That early experience for Vaca would inform her own entrepreneurial endeavors following a three-year speedrun of undergraduate studies at then-Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State), graduating with a major in Communications, and a minor in Business.
For her, the degree was about giving herself options. Despite not getting one in technology, she remained curious about its role in the ever-changing world.
Always the risk-taker, Vaca took her first job in professional technology services in New York City, another place like Texas that was foreign and where she didn’t know anybody.
It was a time, pre-Internet, where the big trading houses on Wall Street were heavily investing in smaller, faster operating systems.
“There’s a common theme here... I’ve never been afraid to step out on my own, by myself and adapt,” she said.
There was also a common theme in the lack of representation Vaca saw at her first two gigs before staking out on her own.
“I didn’t see anybody that looked like me. I didn’t see a real path,” she said.
Vaca also wanted to be closer to her family, and Dallas, Texas became the desired location for that reality. At 25, she asked her boss in New York if she could open the Texas branch of the operation, and was turned down.
‘No’ was not an answer she could accept.
“One of the things my background has taught me, my upbringing has taught me, is to see opportunity where others may not,” said Vaca.
That opportunity showed itself in the early tech industry’s need for expertise. In staffing, Vaca saw how much companies were billed for services, and she knew there was a future ripe for picking.
So, still at 25 and in the face of her first professional roadblock, Vaca leapfrogged it and dove into industry on her own and under her own banner, the Pinnacle Group — specializing in connecting talent with employers in the tech sphere.
She benefited from the low-barrier to entry — only needing a computer and a phone — but also a fierce belief in her own ability to do the job.
Still, there was a lot for a young Vaca to process.
“No, I wasn’t prepared. No, I had no idea what I was doing. But the thing about me is that I’m never afraid to learn,” she said. “I haven’t been the same ever.”
A “learning mindset,” as Vaca calls it, is something that’s encapsulated all her professional life, leading Pinnacle through its highs and lows to become the leader it is today in tech.
One of the lows she pinpointed was 9/11, which saw Pinnacle drafting a liquidation plan after it looked doomed to go out of business.
The company survived, but Vaca learned a number of lessons around financial discipline, the value of reinvesting in one’s own operation and putting people first.
“I learned you have to worry about running out of business before it happens, not as you’re going through it,” said Vaca to her point of reinvesting.
At the time, Pinnacle also had 80% of its business through one client, teaching her in the interest of financial discipline to diversify the company’s portfolio.
“Here’s the deal, there’s a lot of people that learn lessons when things go bad in their life, and there’s other people that just kind of get through it, but they don’t really apply the lesson,” said Vaca. “So I’m really good at learning the lesson and applying it to future years.”
In the end, the “Renaissance” that was 9/11 for Pinnacle has allowed the company to remain self-funded throughout its 25-year existence.
“I’m one of the few companies of our size with no outside investors, no private equity money, none of that. It’s been about the discipline of investing back into the business,” said Vaca.
The reinvestment, along with the mindset of leveraging technology much like her father did, allowed Pinnacle to weather the storms that came later with the 2008 recession and 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than retract through the crises, Vaca’s company has grown following every one, and is positioned to do the same when the world finally sees the end of COVID-19.
Now, in 2021, Pinnacle Group is one of the largest Latino-owned businesses of any industry in the country and Vaca is a national leader in tech, using her status and numerous board appointments to push other Latinas to similar heights.
But for her, it didn’t just start when she obtained a national profile.
Much like the learning that took place throughout Pinnacle’s existence to this day, its efforts to push diverse leadership and action has also been around since day one.
According to stats provided by Vaca, 60% of employees at Pinnacle’s Corporate headquarters in Dallas are women, and 48% are minorities.
“That didn’t happen by accident, we are serious about finding the right people, and it just so happens that some of the most entrepreneurial people are women, are people of color,” said Vaca.
Her message to others pushing for similar initiatives of diversity in the workplace? Be serious, not just sincere.
“People can be sincere about a goal, and not serious… meaning when they’re serious about something, they put a plan in place,” she said.
At Pinnacle, it’s always been part of the plan, and will be forever.