'Don't buy shoes, buy buildings'

Nely Galan, Telemundo's first female president and author of Self-Made, on asking for help and why you should work backwards.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 09 Aug 2017
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'I think like an immigrant.'

Nely Galan, who went from running her own TV production company to becoming the first female president of Telemundo, describes herself as a 'born survivor'. 'Immigrants hustle because they have to. They endure out of necessity,' she says. 'That mindset got me far.'

Galan’s family emigrated from communist Cuba to the States when she was four years old. ‘My parents had been very successful in their own country but they arrived in America with nothing but the clothes on their back,’ she says. ‘Their college degrees meant nothing, they were poor, they were depressed and they spoke very little English. I had to grow up fast.’

Her parents sent her to an all-girls Catholic school but struggled to pay the fees. Aged 14, Galan began selling Avon products to her school mates; she made $800 in the first month and started to pay her own tuition bills. ‘I asked the nuns to write a letter to my father telling him I’d won a scholarship. He’s a proud, macho Latino man and I didn’t want to dent his ego. That was the beginning of me becoming a little more powerful and entrepreneurial. I realised I could solve problems.’  

Galan’s first big break in the world of media came a few years later. After the nuns falsely accused her of plagiarism, she wrote an angry article on why you should never send your daughter to an all-girls Catholic school and mailed it to popular teen title Seventeen. They published it and offered her a job. She became the magazine's youngest ever guest editor.

She went on to start her own production company, Galan Entertainment. Despite ‘not making a penny for the first four years’, she carved out a niche bringing more Latino stories into the mainstream, launching 10 television channels in Latin America and producing 700 episodes of programming, before becoming president of entertainment at major network Telemundo.

And then came a call from NBC asking Galan if she’d like a slot as a contestant on the first season of Celebrity Apprentice with Donald Trump. ‘My initial response was, "Why? I’m not a celebrity." Even when you’re successful, there’s always that nagging feeling that you haven’t done enough. You end up turning down opportunities that are right under your nose. But NBC convinced me to do it. Yes, Donald Trump is a difficult man – but that show changed my life.’

She landed speaking gigs with Fortune 500 companies and started thinking about how to inspire entrepreneurship among other women. She did a Master’s in clinical psychology, created the Adelante Movement, a non-profit that empowers Latina entrepreneurs, and wrote a New York Times bestseller, Self-Made

‘By my early 40s, I’d made enough money not to have to work again. I wanted to share that journey of financial independence and empowerment. People talk about power and money but you so rarely hear about it from women, let alone multicultural women.' 

Galan’s tips on how to become self-made:

1. There’s no Prince Charming: ‘Don’t wait for a man, a lottery ticket or other financial miracles to move you. Understand that there’s no saviour or magic bullet and take responsibility for your own happiness.'

2. Make fear and failure your best friends: ‘In order to win two or three times in life, which is all anyone remembers, you have to fail thousands of times. Don’t run away from fear. Around the corner from your worst failures are most probably your biggest successes.’

3. Choose yourself first: ‘Women tend to diminish what they do and who they are. Men don’t do that; they tell you what they are 20 years from now. Declare your worth and put yourself first otherwise no-one else will.’

4. Ask for help: ‘When I became president for Telemundo, I hired a stylist from Vogue. I’m not that fashionable – I’d happily wear sweat pants and no make-up every day – but I knew I’d have to look good for the role. Get a coach, a therapist, a consultant.... Accept that you’re not an expert in everything and hire help.’

5. Don’t buy shoes, buy buildings: ‘When my company was doing really well, I invested all my money in commercial buildings. Remember: the building your business is in will probably be worth more than your actual business. Forget shoes, forget luxuries – they won’t appreciate in value. Think long-term investments.’  

6. Work backwards: ‘Go to the end of your life and work your way backwards. What’s making you happy? What does success really look like? Look at women who are in their 80s – what is it about their life that you covet? Jealousy can be a beautiful thing.’

Nely Galan was a guest speaker at Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network Summit in San Francisco.



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