Nely Galan - Media Entrepreneur
May 26, 2012
The Conscious Leader
Rather than a setback, being a first-generation immigrant catapulted Nely Galan forward – helping her become the powerful businesswoman she is today.
Galan, 48, found her first success in media as a handpicked guest editor at Seventeen magazine. From there, she fell in love with television, became the nation’s youngest station manager at 22 and launched Galan Entertainment at age 25.
She’s worked with HBO and Fox Corporation, helping them launch television channels in Latin America, then later creating and producing several successful TV shows. In 1998, Sony named her Telemundo’s president of Entertainment, the first Latina to hold such a role. (The network was later sold for $2.8 billion.) To date, Galan has worked on more than 600 shows in English and Spanish.
Now, fresh off a three-year sabbatical she used to obtain a masters and doctorate in clinical psychology, she focuses on giving other Latina women the tools and resources they need to succeed in business too.
Here, she talks to Little PINK Book about her experience as an immigrant, how being expelled from high school changed her life and what aspects of the TV industry she isn’t so crazy about.
Little PINK Book: What’s your success secret?
Nely Galan: I persevere where most entrepreneurs would give up. The first four years of my business, I did not make one penny. My parents and friends told me I was crazy. But I had saved up enough money to live on for a few years because I had had a boss who told me, “When you start a business, it takes 10 years.” At the four-year mark, I was very comfortable and I knew in my heart I was going to do well. This boss told me it was not going to happen quickly, so I didn’t have that expectation.
LPB: How do you maintain a positive outlook?
NG: I always tell people fear and failure are my two best friends. I am afraid to fail, but I’ve worked through my fear. If I fail, I see it as part of my journey to succeed. And I’m very grateful. If you’re an immigrant like I am and you’ve had your parents lose all their money, you grow up understanding life is not perfect.
LPB: How has being an immigrant affected your perspective?
NG: When the economy was bad, Americans were freaking out. But when you come from a third-world country, you’re used to it. Bad things happen in business. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world – you just have to reinvent. I’m not saying I don’t get bummed out, but I know it’s a lesson I have to learn to get to the next place. I live in a state of gratitude that I get to live in a country where I get to be me and can succeed. If I was living in another country I could never have made the money I’ve made and have the opportunities I have.
LPB: So you would say your background impacted your success?
NG: Yes – my grandfather immigrated to Cuba from Spain during the Spanish-American War. He lost everything and then made it back as an entrepreneur in Cuba. There’s a book called That Used to Be Us. It’s about how values in America have started to dwindle. There is a whole chapter called “Think Like an Immigrant.” When I read it I felt like, “That’s me!” because immigrants come to America with a sense of maturity about life. You understand nothing good comes without a lot of work and heartache.
LPB: What was your most successful entrepreneurial endeavor?
NG: Starting my business [Galan Entertainment] at 25 and spending four years making money by sticking it out. I have a business that has lasted all these years in a pretty bad economy. I don’t think it matters what kind of business it was. If tomorrow there were another world war and I had to move to Russia, I would start a new business. I don’t know what it would be, but I would figure it out and do it all over again.
LPB: What do more working women need to learn to be successful?
NG: It’s weird, but I think finding the perfect match for women entrepreneurs requires going to your pain. Someone in a wheelchair might want to start a business to make more comfortable wheelchairs. I made a lot of money and created a great career by focusing on Hispanic television. I was able to create shows that spoke to my family and other immigrants. I did well because I went to my pain. When you combine your pain with business, it almost becomes transcendent. It really works.
LPB: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
NG: When I was 25, I worked at a TV station run by this older man. He sold the station and I was very upset. I said, “How could you sell the station?” He said, “Well, those are my chips. If you want to play, go get your own chips.” It was the best business advice I ever got because I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur. He said, “If you can’t figure out at this point in your life how to get your own chips, then you don’t have what it takes.” He propelled me to a higher place.
LPB: So that inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
NG: I know not all women are entrepreneurs, but I believe in my heart that entrepreneurship is the answer for most women. It’s one of the only ways to have a family and create a meaningful life instead of constantly being in a victimized position and complaining about how other people are demanding things of you that don’t work with your life.
LPB: What’s your leadership style?
NG: When I was very young, my style was like a bull in a china shop. In the early days of my career I was kind of an angry leader. Entrepreneurs tend to work 24 hours a day, and we resent people who don’t work as much. My leadership style changed because I’m a mother and I have a more balanced life. I lead by example with my son [Lukas, 12] and my employees. Television is a teamwork business – it’s very collaborative.
LPB: How big were your teams when you worked in TV?
NG: The TV world has changed – there used to be 70 or 80 employees full-time. Now you outsource almost everything. Right now, if you’re working on a few projects you have about 70 to 150 people that you hire freelance. If you have three shows going at once, you might have 150 per show.
LPB: What characteristics do you look for in a new hire?
NG: I hire people who have been in the military, because I like the way they have been trained in discipline and time [management]. A lot of what I do for a living requires skills that can transfer into any career – being conscious, disciplined, a team player and having an individual voice.
LPB: How did your first job at Seventeen magazine come about?
NG: At my [all-girls Catholic] high school, I was accused of plagiarism by a nun. My parents said, “Why don’t you just go apologize?” I said, “Because I didn’t do anything wrong!” I was suspended for three days, and during that time I wrote an article for Seventeen magazine about why I should not have been kicked out of school. Then I went back to school and they said the plagiarism accusation was wrong and that they made a mistake. Three weeks later I got $100 in the mail from Seventeen telling me they were going to publish my article.
LPB: Was there backlash after the article was published?
NG: I got expelled when the article came out. I went home and my parents said, “You have to apologize, we have to get you back in that school!” It was the first time I really felt like I was part of the Unites States. But my parents didn’t bring me all the way from Cuba for freedom of speech so I wouldn’t take advantage of that freedom to say whatever I want. I called the board of education and asked if they could really get away with expelling me. They said, “Well they kind of can because it’s a private school, but you can do an interview for this local newspaper and cause a stink.” I did the interview and they eventually reversed the expulsion. During that process, Seventeen was so excited that I was a teenager standing up for my rights, they offered me a guest editor position.
LPB: What inspired you to take action against this injustice at such a young age?
NG: I met people who were expelled who told me it had ruined their life. And I was a shy kid. But I remember thinking, This is why my parents brought me here. We left Cuba because they didn’t want me to grow up [under] communism. They wanted me to have more opportunities. Then they kind of chickened out and said, “Just go with the flow.” But the whole thing was so unjust I had to do something. My parents were lost in a new country, learning a new language and a whole new culture. So when they said, “Say you’re sorry,” I felt like, “I am the adult here, I’m in charge and I am going to do what’s right.”
LPB: What’s the biggest career obstacle you’ve faced?
NG: A lot of people may think I’m going to say discrimination, but I would never say that. I think being Latina has done the complete opposite for me. But the biggest obstacle any entrepreneur faces is a bad economy. There were three times when [the economy wasn’t doing well]. During the first two I panicked, but it all turned around fine. When the third one hit a couple of years ago, I had saved money and done the right thing by my business. I knew I could withstand this. That’s why I decided to go back to school and relax. I knew that would pass. And it did.
LPB: How do you balance work and life?
NG: There is no balance in the beginning for entrepreneurs. And I don’t think there should be. I look back and say, “Thank goodness I worked like a dog in the beginning.” I think you should start a business as quickly as you can because the younger you are the better. You have to be energetic to work 24 hours a day. I am blessed because I had my son at 35. I figured it out for me and I fought hard. I actually moved my office next to my house. When my son was younger, I would be in the office until 11 o’clock at night. I knew if I kept going like that, he would grow up to have this special relationship with the nanny and I was going to be the dog. When my son was 8 years old, I moved my office next door so I wouldn’t have to commute. I bought that house when he was born, then rented it out. I planned ahead.
LPB: How do you relax and rejuvenate yourself?
NG: I bought an apartment in Canyon Ranch. I really am addicted to Canyon Ranch. I go one week a year with women or by myself. I exercise and eat really healthy. Again, I planned ahead – and I have a place in Miami that will end up being where I go to retire. Miami is my happy place.
LPB: What book are you currently reading?
NG: Untie the Strong Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It’s a new interpretation of the Virgen de Guadalupe. She’s an icon for Latinas, and their interpretation of her is about being supportive, submissive, being there for others and not doing anything for yourself. This author has reinterpreted this icon to say she really wants us to untie the strong woman and let it rip. I love that book.
LPB: What are your hobbies?
NG: Work is my hobby, but traveling, traveling, traveling, reading, house hunting and going to ethnic restaurants, particularly Cuban and Peruvian.
LPB: What’s one random fact about you?
NG: I’m kind of anal-retentive. I’m very organized, almost a little obsessive compulsive. I think I’m weird because I am highly organized but I am also highly creative. People think you have to be chaotic to be creative but I think that’s bulls***. When you have clarity and order in your life, your mind is clear. I have clear, creative thoughts, and it’s because I’m organized, orderly and linear.
LPB: What is one personal goal you haven’t yet achieved?
NG: I would like to get involved with the Cuban government. Right now I am working on the Adelante Movement. It’s about Latina empowerment. I’ve gotten major funding from Coca-Cola and other corporations. Statistically, Latinas are the fastest economic growth space in America. They’re starting businesses faster than anyone else with hardly any skills or access to resources. At this point in my life, I want to give back to Latinas. I want this to be a movement of Latina’s saying, “This is our time,” and to go forward by helping them and giving them tools. I will still do television, but I think I will eventually transition into more advocacy work, which is what I am doing now. I think that will lead me to eventually doing public service work.
LPB: Do you have a favorite quote?
NG: It’s a Spanish quote. It’s translated to, “There is nothing bad that happens that isn’t for a good reason.” I really believe that’s the truth.
LPB: How do you define success?
NG: I have had a lot of confusion about that. In this industry, if you work on a TV show or movie and you have a wonderful experience doing it but the thing wasn’t a huge a hit, the journey gets devalued. By the same token, if you work and have a miserable, horrible journey, but it makes a lot of money, you get told to do it over again. Part of my sabbatical and going back to school was to give myself time to think about what doesn’t feel good about what I’m doing. Latinas are journey-oriented. We’re really not about money, but about relationships. I wasn’t being rewarded or given kudos for a great journey and great relationships, but simply for bottom line success. At this point in my life, success is about a happy journey. Not everything is perfect everyday. But success means working with people you like, having real relationships and going on a journey that’s meaningful. Otherwise what’s the point?