BETTENDORF -- WhenNina Vaca was 17, her father was murdered at the Los Angeles travel agency he owned.
Having worked since she was 10, the Ecuador native then worked even harder -- 16-hour days -- to help her family. Ms. Vaca's mother sold the business to help put her through school at Texas State University. In 2010, 14 years after starting her own company, Ms. Vaca reached the pinnacle of the Latino business community in this country, becoming board chairman of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The feisty, determined and tireless leader inspired the 300-plus guests Saturday night askeynote speaker at the Greater Quad Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce annual gala.
"I am just an ordinary woman with extraordinary dreams," said Ms. Vaca,CEO of Dallas-based Pinnacle Technical Resources, an information technology services provider to Fortune 500 companies that currently has 4,500 employees.
"This country is an amazing country," she said. "If you're willing to work hard, I'm living proof you can be anything you want to be."
From her parents, Ms. Vaca learned the value of hard work, education, entrepreneurship and involvement in chambers of commerce. She said her father was active in his local chamber and his community, and she made it her life's work to finish what he started.
"Life is not about the hand that is dealt for you," she said of overcoming tragedy. "Life is about what you do with that hand." Ms. Vaca added: "You never let circumstances define you. You define you."
"Entrepreneurship was in my blood. I found a need and I started to fill it," she said of founding Pinnacle at age 25.
In 2005, Ms. Vaca was featured in Fast Company magazine as one of the Top 25 Women Business Builders in the country. She has been featured in many other high-profile publications, including Entrepreneur, Kiplinger and Forbes, and has been honored as Hispanic Businesswoman of the Year by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber. She has been invited to the White House and the Vatican.
She earned the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for Technology and Communications for the Southwest Region, and in 2010 was named one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in America by Latino Leaders.
"Nina Vaca serves as a shining example of how a talented, determined minority individual can play a vital role in the international business community," said Lee Vasquez, the GQCHCC executive director. "She is an inspiration to the Hispanic community, and to everyone who believes in the power of diversity. We are truly proud to have Nina as the keynote speaker at our annual gala."
At the packed main ballroom in the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center, she urged guests (many active in the 200-member, four-year-old chamber) to get involved in the community and earn respect of their colleagues, employees and others.
"Credibility is everything. If you don't have credibility, you cannot lead an organization," Ms. Vaca said, emphasizing the need to do that with kindness and generosity, not expecting anything in return.
Because of the U.S. Hispanic population boom (she noted 536 Hispanics are born every hour) and Latinos growing their own businesses faster than the overall economy, the community is becoming an economic and cultural powerhouse that no longer can be ignored.
"It's about time people start recognizing our contributions," Ms. Vaca said. "If you're not related to a Hispanic, you soon will be. If you don't believe me, ask my German husband. A new day is dawning in America."
"Investment in the Hispanic community is an investment in America," she added.
A friend of GQCHCC chairman and founder Bob Ontiveros, Ms. Vaca praised the local group for its explosive growth and positive contributions to the area.
"What an amazing example of energy, culture and connectivity I have witnessed tonight," she said. "This is just absolutely beautiful."Last September, the GQCHCC received national recognition from the U.S. Hispanic chamber as the 2012 Small Hispanic Chamber of the Year.
At the conclusion of Saturday's gala, the Q-C organization gave out its own awards for outstanding contributions and commitment to the Hispanic community. They are:
-- Corporation of the Year: Ascentra Credit Union.
-- Small Business of the Year: Results Marketing.
-- Community Leadership Award: Hola America Media Group.
-- Student Leadership Award: Salvador Andrey Mojica (a graduate of Black Hawk College, Phi Theta Kappa member, and law-enforcement major at Western Illinois University).
-- Ambassador of the Year: Michael Reyes, of Davenport (president of League of United Latin American Citizens, Council 10, who has created a mentorship program for area Latino students).
For more information on the chamber, visit gqchcc.com.