Women Who Lead-Meet Nina Vaca

By Cheryl Hall The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Nina Vaca founded "Pinnacle Group" in 2012. The company offers tech workforce solutions, mostly to large corporations. Pinnacle has more than quadrupled its revenue, blowing past the billion-dollar mark last year.

The Dallas Morning News

The first time you hear about Nina Vaca, you wonder why you've never heard of her before.

At 46, this married mother of four owns a billion-dollar-plus tech staffing company, competes in triathlons for charity and supports Dallas ISD STEM efforts while uplifting the aspirations of women and minorities.

"I've been blessed many times to be the first, the youngest or the only," says Vaca, founder and CEO of Dallas-based Pinnacle Group and a director of three major public corporations. "I look around the boardroom, and I don't see others who look like me. Changing that is a focal point in my life.

"I call it a three-legged stool: my family first, my business and my community."

Vaca is well-known in some circles -- she's pictured on the current cover of Latino Leaders magazine, featuring the 101 most influential Hispanics in America.

But Nina Vaca is hardly a household name.

That's changing.

In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Vaca as a presidential ambassador of global entrepreneurship. In this capacity, she has traveled to five continents, representing the White House and the Department of Commerce in an entrepreneurship crusade.

She'll be in Jordan beginning Sunday for three jampacked days as the guest of the U.S. Embassy, spreading the gospel to government agencies, women's groups and the next generation of entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

She's living the lofty name of her company that she picked to inspire her in 1996, when she founded Pinnacle on the dining room floor of her Far North Dallas apartment with $300 and a Dell Computer.

"I started literally knocking on doors of corporations and businesses in Dallas, Texas, offering to provide them with IT talent," Vaca recalls. "I had a purpose, a computer and an attitude. I told myself: 'I can do this.' "

And she has.

Since 2012, Pinnacle Group, which offers tech workforce solutions, mostly to large corporations, has more than quadrupled its revenue, blowing past the billion-dollar mark last year.

Pinnacle has topped or placed second on the 50 fastest-growing women-owned/led companies list compiled by the Women Presidents' Organization in conjunction with American Express in each of the last three years

Vaca figures Pinnacle has a shot at No. 1 again because she expects revenue to balloon to $1.6 billion this year. And that doesn't take into account a megadeal with MetLife that was inked this month. Beginning next year, Pinnacle will manage the insurance icon's spending on technology services.

"It was clear that [Pinnacle] could adapt to any business climate and overcome complex problems," says Michael Schiappa, vice president of global procurement for MetLife.

A parade of kudos The lobby and hallways of Pinnacle headquarters on LBJ Freeway are a gallery of recognitions.

"Awards are a symbol of what we've done," Vaca says, passing a plaque proclaiming Pinnacle as AT&T's supplier of the year in 2016. "But they're not a symbol of who we are."

So "who" is Pinnacle?

"We're much like the Southwest Airlines of our industry," she says. "We're nimble, flexible, entrepreneurial and really, really good at what we do. We're turning heads with the caliber of clients we're winning."

So who is Nina Vaca?

Vaca is an immigrant by a twist of fate.

Her parents, Amanda and Alfredo Vaca, emigrated from Quito, Ecuador, to California in the '60s. As the middle of five kids, the other four of whom were born in Los Angeles, Nina should have been born in the U.S.

But Amanda, a civic activist who fought for U.S. rights of Ecuadoreans, was on a trip to her homeland when Nina "just came out" on April Fools' Day 1971.

Her entrepreneurial parents put their children's education first, moving to neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley that they couldn't afford so the kids could attend better schools.

"No matter where it was, I'd wake up at the crack of dawn and take the rapid transit to school," Vaca says. "It was hard and a lot of work, but it taught me a lot about life: If I wanted that good education, I'd be at the bus stop at 5:30 in the morning.

"Today, I have an incredible work ethic."

Her father, who owned a travel agency, was murdered in 1989, when Nina was 17.

"My dad died at 46. My age exactly. And he left behind five children," Vaca says. "It was a tragic time for my family. That's what makes our success story so beautiful.

"Yes, like a good entrepreneur, I found a need in the marketplace and a way to fill it. Yes, the barriers to entry were minimal at the time because there was so much demand for IT. Yes, all those things are true.

"But the real purpose behind me starting Pinnacle was to create a better life and a better circumstance for my family."

Her older sister, Jessica Narvaez, joined Pinnacle's management team early on, followed by her younger brother, Freddy Vaca, then her husband, Jim Humrichouse, and cousin, Ximena Alvarez.

Today, Vaca numbers her "family" in the thousands, including 5,000 employees and people in the communities here and abroad that she helps.

"The larger and more successful we are at Pinnacle, the more we're able to give back in a material way," Vaca says. "It's part of our DNA."

A Texan by choice, sorta So how did Nina come to be a transplanted Texan?

After Alfredo's murder, Nina's maternal grandmother became ill with a heart condition. Amanda took her to Houston for treatment.

"That's how my mother discovered this place called Texas," says Nina, who stayed in California to sell her father's travel agency. "This was 1989. The price of oil was very low. People were walking away from their homes. She had this vision that our family could create a better life here in Texas."

Nina begged her mother to go to college. "She said, 'You can go to college as long as you stay close to home.' " Nina enrolled in Southwest Texas State (now Texas State) University in San Marcos.

"L.A. girl dropped in a tiny little college town," she says. "I didn't know a soul there, and very few people looked like me. But I've been a risk-taker all my life.

"Fast-forward, today, I'm proud to have an endowment in my name there at that small but mighty university."

Vaca was given the distinction in 2012 -- the youngest in university history -- and one she shares with former President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The 25-year-old launched Pinnacle in October 1996, bringing in $30,000 by year's end.

"Everything was going great from '96 to 2001," she recalls. "I got married in 1999. Had my first millennial baby in 2000. I had my second baby girl two days after 9/11."

The terrorist attacks sent her industry and her company into a deep chasm.

Vaca dug in, used her life savings, mortgaged her home and hired IT talent that others had let go.

"We came out of that recession kicking," she says.

Key moments Verizon and AT&T gave Vaca her first big boosts in late 2001.

In 2007, EDS signed a $160 million contract with Pinnacle, which was generating only about $40 million in annual revenue at the time. "It was the proverbial whale that took us into 45 states," she says.

Comcast came on board nearly four years ago. Pinnacle manages the telecom giant's contingent IT labor force and hundreds of tech suppliers throughout its organization.

"Comcast gave us an opportunity to do something extremely strategic and big," she says. "But what they really did was give women-owned businesses hope."

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