Nely Galán left home when she was 17.
She ignored the threats and protests of her Cuban mother.
“You are not going. You cannot leave me. I will never forgive you,” Galán remembers her mom saying.
But to Galán, it wasn’t a choice. She was a first-generation Cuban immigrant, raised to believe she should stay close to her family and help care for them. She acted as her mother’s translator in their New Jersey town. She started selling beauty products when she was 13 to help pay tuition for her private Catholic school. She was not supposed to be selfish.
And yet, how could she not go? As a high school graduate, she had been offered a full-time job doing research for a television show in Austin, Texas. She thought that God, or the universe, was sending her signs.
I‘ve got to go, she thought as her mother cried. You’re getting in my way.
So she packed up her orange Chevy Chevette and drove to Texas.
It was the first of many moves that helped her construct a lifetime of independence. Galán went on to become the first Latina president of entertainment of a U.S. television network; head of her own company, Galán Entertainment; and founder of the Adelante Movement, which seeks to empower Latina women and help them become entrepreneurs. In her new book, Self Made: Becoming Empowered, Self-Reliant, and Rich in Every Way, her goal is to spread the same message: Women, especially those from more traditional cultural backgrounds, should aim to be their own bosses and make their own money so they can have the freedom to pursue whatever they love. Galán never says this will be easy.
La Jefa—the boss lady herself—is just proof that it can be done.
Growing up, Galán watched The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and kept a poster of Sherry Lansing—the first female president of a major Hollywood film studio—in her bedroom. Lansing had briefly worked as a teacher before entering the movie business, and something about her life made Galán think, I could do that, too.
“There were no women that looked like me doing the things that I was interested in.”
But at the time, she says, “There were no women that looked like me doing the things that I was interested in.”
The characters in Spanish-language telenovelas looked like people in her family; they just didn’t act like them. She began to think that it was her job to make shows that reflected her reality.
EARL GIBSON III/WIRE IMAGE
Galán’s family emigrated from Cuba when she was 5, fleeing Fidel Castro’s dictatorship and settling in a predominantly Jewish and African-American neighborhood of Teaneck, New Jersey. Her mother, who had a college degree, took work as a seamstress in a factory. Her father went from owning supermarkets and car dealerships in Cuba to painting cars on an assembly line. But they didn’t complain. “They loved their new country, and they taught my brother and me to love it and be grateful every day for being here,” Galán writes in Self Made.
Still, Galán knew what they had sacrificed. “Everything about your life growing up is about helping your family pay off debt.”
She says this on the phone from Los Angeles, where she has a famously colorful home, a husband, a son, and a dog she adores. Her voice is confident and warm, slightly hoarse, with a pronounced New Jersey accent. It’s hard to imagine her struggling to defend herself.
Yet as a kid, anxieties haunted her. She was scared of kites and the snow; bit her nails and cried often. In sixth grade, she was being bullied by a classmate and didn’t know how to fight back. One day, Galán yelled at the girl and threw her against a trash can. The girl backed off. It wasn’t Galán’s proudest moment, but she realized the need to stand up for herself. You might even have to fake the confidence to do it. “You have to sometimes pretend you’re someone else,” she says.
Related: How to Stand Up for Yourself
By the time she was a sophomore in high school, Galán was such a talented writer that one of her teachers accused her of plagiarizing Ernest Hemingway in a short story assignment. The school suspended her for three days, and her parents refused to defend her. “As immigrants, they were always afraid; everything brought shame,” Galán writes in her book. “They told me, ‘You need to go back and apologize to your teacher.’ ”
No way. Instead, the 15-year-old Galán holed herself up in her attic during her suspension and wrote an essay: “Why You Should Never Send Your Daughter to an All-Girls Catholic School.” It was a cheeky, sarcastic look at the institution that had just punished her, with its highly proper nuns and dress code that didn’t fit the free-love style of the 1970s. “You wear these short skirts and then you roll them down so they don’t hit you on the knee,” she remembers writing.
Galán mailed the essay to her favorite magazine, Seventeen. Then she went back to school. The nun who had punished her apologized, and Galán went back to being her studious, obedient self. Until one day a letter arrived on Seventeen magazine letterhead. “Congratulations!” it said. “We’ve chosen your article to be published in Seventeen. Enclosed is a $100 check.”
Galán was ecstatic. The nuns were not. Seventeen had offered her a guest editorship—a yearlong, unpaid internship usually reserved for juniors in college. She graduated from high school a year and a half early.
That year, she worked at a retail clothing shop to pay her bus fare into New York from Teaneck. Her colleagues at Seventeen were stylish blonde girls from Connecticut—not the kind of women who could sympathize with a Cuban girl who was used to dressing only for nuns. On her first day, her boss asked her to book a photo shoot. Galán had no idea how. “Well, if I have to explain it to you, I’d rather fire you,” the editor said.
So once again, Galán got to work. The many nights she went home crying were worth it, Galán says, because that job represented her liberation. She was determined to win over the glamourous women she worked with.
And she did. By the end of the internship, she was offered the job at the television station in Texas, the job that would lead to her freedom.
By her early 20s, Galán was working at CBS in Boston as part of a producer and correspondent training program. She traveled all around the country interviewing people—an entry-level media gig known as stringing. One of the people she interviewed was Norman Lear, the highly successful creator of hit shows such as All in the Family and Sanford and Son. He told Galán that he and his partners had just bought a Spanish-language television station in New Jersey, and suggested that she interview for a position there. “We think the Latin market is going to be big,” he said.
Galán wasn’t thrilled about the job. She didn’t think she liked Latino programming, and the station, WNJU-TV/Channel 47 in Newark, was tiny. Yet she knew Lear was a big deal in Hollywood and saw the opportunity working under him could provide.
That’s how she became a station manager at age 22. The job required her to work day and night, creating programming, meeting with advertisers, managing sponsorship of the Puerto Rican Day parade. After five years toiling in low-level journalism, she thought she had landed her dream gig. “You learn on the job all the pieces that it takes to run a business successfully,” she says. “That TV station was the best decision I ever made and the foundation of everything that was to come.”
Until it was sold.
One morning, Galán arrived at work to find the company’s attorney sitting outside her office. He calmly informed her that the television station had been sold to an insurance company. She ran to the bathroom and threw up. Three years of her life sacrificed for this? All Galán could think about was losing her job, and how her bosses hadn’t even bothered to warn her.
She got into her car, tears streaming down her face, and drove over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. The 25-year-old station manager stormed into her boss’s office where she found him on the phone, bragging to someone about the sale of the company.
“How could you do this to me? Why didn’t you tell me?” she remembers saying before bursting into tears.
Her boss raised his hand to quiet her. “Young lady, those are our chips,” he said. “You want to play? Go get your own chips.”
It was humiliating, infuriating, inherently unfair. But after she had calmed down, Galán realized he was right. She had to start her own company. She had to get her own chips.
Her severance package from the station was enough to pay her salary for the next year, and she used that cushion to launch a production company that would create original Latino programs. It wasn’t easy. She moved into a cheaper apartment, sold her car and took night work as a stringer to pay the bills. Still, her company didn’t make money for four years.
She prayed. She yelled at God. She listened to her mother tell her, “Mi’ja, your looks are fading. You need to find a husband.”
Finally in 1992 she got a break. A friend became an executive at HBO and helped her land a gig advising the network as it prepared to launch in Latin America. A few months later, ESPN hired her to help launch a channel for ESPN Deportes. Then Fox called for a meeting—specifically, a meeting with the network’s owner, Rupert Murdoch. He wanted her to help launch all of the Fox channels in Latin America by creating promos and marketing materials for the television shows.
It wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted to make her own content. But Murdoch, whom she now considers a mentor, convinced her that she needed to do more behind-the-scenes work first, to continue to prove herself in the industry. Instead of agreeing to work full-time for Fox, she negotiated a deal for the network to outsource the work to her company.
She got her own chips.
Fox became Galán Entertainment’s biggest client. Galán moved to Los Angeles and started spending more time working in Latin America than in the U.S. She also made wise real estate investments—a decision she says was key to becoming self-made.
Even as Galán became more successful and moved to L.A., she didn’t buy a house or fancy furniture. First she bought her parents a condo in Miami, and then she bought an office building in Venice, California, to house her production company. The appreciation of that building, purchased cheaply in 1998, was one of the reasons she didn’t have to worry about working when the economy crashed a decade later. “The revenue from it and other buildings I had subsequently bought allowed me to dedicate myself full time to my mission,” she writes in her book. She didn’t buy herself a house for two more years, saving her money because she knew it was wiser to invest in property that would earn cash for her down the line.
Meanwhile, Galán’s career kept climbing. Also in 1998, she took a hiatus from Galán Entertainment when Sony hired her to be president of entertainment for Telemundo—the first Latina president of an American network, the job she had dreamed about since she was young. Galán appeared to be on top of the world. But her personal life was about to collapse.
She became pregnant with a man she had been dating for about 10 years but quickly realized the two of them had “irreconcilable differences.” Not long after her son was born, her partner left. Galán fell into a depression. After all her years of hard work and all the money she had saved, she still was not convinced that she could take care of herself and her son. A friend helped her see that she was perfectly capable of paying the bills, but she still felt ugly. She had gained weight and wasn’t happy with the way she looked. Galán started fantasizing about an inside out makeover.
At the time, she was reading her son the complete works of Hans Christian Andersen. Reading him the story of the ugly duckling becoming a swan, she realized how universal it was, to wish for a complete transformation. “Everyone in the world knows what the swan is,” she thought. “This is a hit TV show.”
Her idea became The Swan, a reality show that offered contestants extensive plastic surgery with the goal of remaking their lives. Before the show aired on Fox in 2004, Galán says the network made a last-minute decision to focus more on the high-stakes drama of extreme surgery than the internal transformation the contestants went through. She was disappointed, and the show endured ongoing criticism. But she’s proud of it anyway. “I still feel like it really was a life-changing thing,” she says. “And it was one of the biggest hits of my life.”
Related: How a Self-Portrait Changed My Life
Perhaps most important, Galán says The Swan gave her a way to profit from her suffering. That’s part of becoming self-made, too. “When you’re going through bad things, you think you’re alone,” she says. “Instead… you just use that pain to create work.”
Galán left Telemundo in 2001. She competed on the first season of The Celebrity Apprentice in 2007. Gene Simmons of the band Kiss was one of her teammates, and the two grew close. As she writes in her book, “When you get past the images of him in his crazy face paint and platform boots, [he] is extremely perceptive and thoughtful.”
“It’s almost like you don’t enjoy the journey if it’s not hard.… Don’t you know that you don’t need to do that anymore?”
Before he left the show, Simmons gave her a piece of life-changing advice. “It’s almost like you don’t enjoy the journey if it’s not hard.… Don’t you know that you don’t need to do that anymore? Don’t you know that you are already successful, that you have an incredible Rolodex at this point? Why aren’t you doing something bigger with your life?”
TOMMY BAYNARD/NBC/NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY IMAGES
It was a tough thing for Galán to hear. All she’d done since she was 17 was work harder than everyone else around her. It was her path to success. And now he was criticizing her for that?
At home, her partner, Brian Ulf, encouraged her to think about it differently. What was she afraid of? What would she do if she only had one year to live? he wondered. The answer was easy: Go back to school.
And that’s how, at age 45, Galán enrolled in courses for her bachelor’s degree. To some, the timing might have seemed odd. The economy was tanking and Galán was worried about making money with her entertainment company. But it turned out she didn’t need money. She’d lived frugally her whole life, saving pennies and investing her extra cash in real estate. Now her properties were generating so much rental income that she didn’t need another paycheck. For an immigrant who had been working full time since she graduated high school, this was an incredible feeling.
“I didn’t have to work,” she says. “I was able to take time off and actually improve myself.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree, Galán earned a master’s in marriage and family therapy. She’s now working on a doctorate in clinical psychology.
And she’s found her mission. In 2012 she launched the Adelante Movement, an organization that works to empower women through live events and online training in entrepreneurship. In Spanish, adelante means “Move it! Now! Let’s go!” Galán is the embodiment of the term.
She tours the country, speaking to women, mentoring them, sharing her stories of success and failure. “Nely never forgets the people who helped her,” says her friend Nell Merlino, creator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day and the organization Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence. “She’s very generous.”
That’s not to say that Galán thinks everyone should follow in her footsteps. She admits that her path to becoming a media mogul—doing things the hardest way, striving to be the head honcho in a corporate job—isn’t necessarily a good fit for other women. She estimates that about five of the 2,000 women she’s trained and mentored have decided to do something similar to what she does. They tell her, “We don’t want to grow up to be you. It’s a lot of work.”
Even writing Self Made required dedication—a year to write it, along with months of work to launch and promote it. Given her financial status and all the years she spent becoming self-reliant, Galán could be retired. The immigrant girl from New Jersey is her own boss, runs her own company and spends her days teaching other women how to do the same. She lives in a beautiful house in Venice, a home so striking the Los Angeles Times called it “the most colorful house on L.A.’s Venice canals.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s ready to stop reaching for the next goal. The difference now is that she’s working because she wants to, not because she has to.
“I would never retire,” she says. “I think I’m gonna be 90 and still working.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.