It’s a good thing that Nina Vaca’s reputation precedes her. She would have a hard time fitting all of her experiences on a résumé.
It would have to start with an awards and accolades section discussing her appointment by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship program in 2014, for which she traveled the globe to tell her story to future entrepreneurs. Then she could list superlatives like being named the fourth most powerful Latina in the country, or that her business, Pinnacle Group, was named the fastest growing woman-owned company in the country in both 2015 and 2018.
But then she would get to the skills and accomplishments section of the résumé and things would get really interesting. She could talk about her ability to hire and manage a staff spread across the globe, or about the major clients she’s picked up through the years, or about her public speaking abilities.
However, a survey of her life and career makes one skill stand out above the rest: Crisis Management.
Vaca has been at the helm of Pinnacle Group, the Dallas-based workforce solutions company she founded on the floor of her apartment, for more than two decades now, and has seen her fair share of challenges.
After leading Pinnacle through several major crises and countless smaller ones, all while dealing with situations in her personal and family life, the chairwoman and CEO knows the next crisis is always around the next corner.
Whether that crisis is a global pandemic, an economy that crashes overnight, a medical emergency, or any other business or personal tragedy, she has learned that the thing that matters the most in any situation is how you respond.
“A crisis is a time where your true character shines. It’s a very important thing for a leader to not react but to respond,” Vaca says. “That means taking time to gain perspective to be thoughtful and then setting your course of action.”
Vaca’s stories of overcoming challenges and leading through crises weave a thread through her life from an early age. The daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants in California, Vaca grew up learning entrepreneurship from her father and civic leadership from her mother.
She worked in her father’s travel agency as a teenager, but when he was tragically killed during a robbery at the business, Vaca and her sister had to step in and take over. This placed a massive burden on the 17-year-old Vaca, but she learned invaluable business and life lessons. It also drove her to college at Texas State University.
She started her own IT staffing firm at the age of 25. From the company’s founding in 1996 until 2001, growth was astounding. She was a young Latina entrepreneur with a thriving company, a husband, and two children.
Then came another crisis, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The resulting economic crash hit Pinnacle hard. The situation got so bad that Vaca, at the suggestion of outside advisers, prepared a liquidation plan. But she couldn’t give up just yet.
Instead of closing up shop and moving on, Vaca stopped taking a salary and started seeking solutions. If her clients weren’t needing Pinnacle’s services, what did they want and how could she cater to these needs?
Eventually, the company was able to transform its offerings to what clients and potential clients wanted, and the business began thriving once again.
Vaca credits her willingness to be honest and seek answers with her ability to lead in tough times.
“Transparency is imperative in a time of crisis,” she says. “I have a learner mindset instead of a knower mindset. The learner mindset is more vulnerable and accepts the fact that they may not know all the answers.”
Making it through the economic downturn after September 11 led to impressive growth for Pinnacle Group and the accolades for Vaca and the company followed. She and Jim had two more kids. Things were looking up again, even as Pinnacle fought through the challenges of the Great Recession.
The next crisis didn’t affect the whole world or the whole country. In fact, it only affected herself.
Vaca is a dedicated triathlete who has competed in endurance races, so a health scare was the furthest thing from her radar. And then one day in 2014, her appendix burst. She was severely weakened and had to receive treatment for a month because an appendectomy wasn’t possible.
For someone used to running, swimming, biking and leading a company that is growing exponentially, being taken out like this was unthinkable. She spent the next two years getting back into triathlon shape before testing her body, and her nerves, by completing the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco, where participants begin the race by jumping into the ice cold, shark-filled waters of the San Francisco Bay.
Fear is clearly not part of Vaca’s mindset.
Passing It On
Vaca’s business successes are easy to see, but that is only half of what she wants to be known for. Her father was an entrepreneur, but her mother was heavily involved in civic leadership, and Vaca has taken up that mantle in a big way. She has used her story to encourage young entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and not to let societal influences keep them from trying to accomplish big things.
Today only 2 percent of publicly traded company board members are Latina, but Latinas comprise the fastest growing sector of the entrepreneurial market.
Just as she has, Vaca hopes young Latinas use their life experiences to accomplish great things, and she wants to be the person who points them in the right direction.
Pinnacle mentors students in the Pathways in Technology Early College High School program (P-TECH) at a local Dallas high school with a 99 percent minority population, of which 78 percent are economically disadvantaged. The students graduate with a high school diploma and an Associate Degree in a STEM field.
“We all have different ways that we advocate,” Vaca says. “The way that I have decided to advocate is by sharing my personal experiences, particularly for people who look like me.”
Learning How to Respond
When the COVID-19 crisis hit earlier this year, Vaca knew it would be different from past challenges, but that she and Pinnacle were ready.
Vaca built her company on her entrepreneurial instincts. She is adept at weighing risks and making quick decisions. But those same instincts can be detrimental in a crisis where cooler heads tend to prevail.
“I’m always about fast responses and immediate actions. But as a leader I know that I am more effective when I can take the time to be thoughtful to reflect before taking action,” Vaca says. “As new information is presented or as the situation changes I can think carefully about our responses rather than just allowing that knee-jerk reaction to guide our steps. In the time period between what happens and your response, there’s a lot of freedom and choice. As I’ve matured as a leader, I treasure that. We have a choice in how we react and we have certain freedoms in how we react.”
This became even more important in a crisis so full of unknowns like the COVID-19 crisis. Vaca felt it was vital to reach out to her entire workforce with a message of reassurance, but not one full of empty platitudes. Instead, she led with honesty.
“It was very important for me to get on a Zoom call and be completely transparent,” Vaca says. “Transparency has been the cornerstone of how we have really managed through COVID-19. Sometimes I didn’t have all the answers and I had to be honest about that.”
Vaca’s student mindset has been crucial during this crisis, and her business experiences dating all the way back to the travel agency at age 17 prepared her for the moment.
“My background and my circumstances and the things that have happened to me in my life, the circumstances in which I grew up, all of it together has combined to give me an incredible gift: the gift of experience,” Vaca says. “For me, mindset has always been at the forefront, even when I was a teenager…. Being personally responsible and having that positive mindset in looking toward the future have helped me in life and in business.”
Read next: Nina Vaca’s Top 5 Tips for Facing Challenges
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo Courtesy of Nina Vaca
Scott Bedgood is a freelance writer and the author of Lessons from Legends: 12 Hall of Fame Coaches on Leadership, Life, and Leaving a Legacy. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife Sami.