When NBC was looking for a Latina contestant for Celebrity Apprentice in 2008, the network had something very specific in mind: a successful Latina who wouldn’t be afraid to stand up to Donald Trump. Nely Galán, 56, a fierce and cool-headed media mogul, an Emmy award winning producer and former President of Entertainment at Telemundo, was their woman. She gave Trump the hell he deserved until he fired her, of course.
In reality, standing up to Trump, though she’d had her initial fears and insecurities of being on the show, was a walk in the park for the Cuban-born immigrant, compared to the nuns she had to combat at her all-girls Catholic high school in New Jersey when she was 15. Galán, a petite woman with a raspy voice, a lustrous dark mane, big, smiling eyes and an even bigger smile, was accused of plagiarizing a story about an old woman in a Cuban fishing village for school and was thus suspended for it. The nuns thought she had ripped it off Hemingway himself.
While her parents told her to simply apologize to the nuns, even if she hadn’t copied it, she refused, got angry, and took her story to what she already knew at that age to be the second most powerful entity in this country after the Catholic Church: the press. First, she wrote a snarky essay about the cons of being at an all-girls Catholic school and sent it to Seventeen magazine. The editors thought the piece was so original that they offered her an unpaid guest editorship at the magazine. When she thought she really might get expelled for plagiarizing, she then went to her local newspaper and submitted an essay about a catholic high school’s student’s first amendment rights not being honored. Given the publicity, the nuns eventually realized that the story wasn’t copied and gave her an A.
A Prophet on How to Profit
In her New York Times bestselling book Self Made: Becoming Empowered, Self-Reliant, and Rich in Every Way, published in 2016 by Random House, she writes about that pivotal moment in her life, “I now know that anger can be a powerful tool if you harness it properly. It can motivate you to do something grand, to beat the system.” Galán not only continues to beat the system, but takes ownership of it as she learns how to be of service to others by helping herself to always keep growing.
One of the best takeaways of Self-Made are her Nelyisms, pithy one liners chock-full of wisdom, such as: “In Your Pain is your Brand.” Nely took her pain, her family’s pain and branded it for all of us to learn from.
Nelyism: There is no Prince Charming, You are It
She’s been called a visionary, a maverick entrepreneur, for all that she has been able to achieve in her life at such an early age, coming from a family who came to the U.S. from Cuba with nothing but the shirts on the their backs. And those who have been following her career are aware that Self Made was nothing short of being prophetic.
— Nely Galan (@Nely_Galan) April 5, 2018
When she penned the book in 2015, it was before the Women’s March, before Emma Gonzalez, before the MeToo movement, before a million women winning seats in office the way they have in the last year. With Self Made, Galán called it. She saw it coming. She anticipated the emergence of women’s power, and she wrote us all a playbook.
Self Made is both a book about her own experiences with overcoming self-doubt, the patriarchy and discrimination, and making money without relying on some kind of Prince Charming. At the same time it’s a revolutionary manual on how to achieve self-reliance financially and become more goal oriented. Her book, her whole message really, matters now more than ever, as we keep mobilizing women — and especially women of color — toward change.
Her mission is also embedded in The Adelante Movement (“Let’s get going!”), a nonprofit she created before the book’s publication in order to train and empower Latina women to become entrepreneurs. Through webinars and the tutorials she does on both her Self Made and Adelante websites, women have access to practical information, networking resources and her answers to the most basic of financial questions.
However, it wasn´t just Latinas who began showing up to her events over the years, writes Galán on the website, as multicultural women who were leading a new economic women’s movement began attending her events, too. For Galán, Self Made is the culmination of nearly four years on the road meeting and training women through the Adelante Movement. These are also the women who have collectively become the largest economic growth engine in the U.S.
Nelyism: Make Fear and Failure Your Best Friends
Galán was born in 1963 in Santa Clara, Cuba, where her family owned land on which they grew bananas and sugar cane among other crops. Escaping Castro’s regime, Galán’s family first moved from Cuba to Spain briefly, where she has ancestors with Jewish roots. From Spain they moved to Red Bank, New Jersey when she was five years old.
Galan’s family didn’t move into their own home first upon arriving to the United States either, but instead to the home of an American family, where they lived in their basement. Back then, U.S. families would open up their homes in order to sponsor Cuban families. Galan’s family arrived to the home of a kind woman named Phyllis Krebs by way of the Presbyterian Church, who served as a conduit to Galán’s rapid acculturation. She remembers picking up English quickly from speaking with Krebs and watching television programs like the Brady Bunch.
Her parents worked hard to start their lives all over again. Unlike her, they didn’t pick up the language so quickly and soon a young Galán was serving as full-time interpreter for her parents in this new land. “It’s like parents become your children,” she notes. Her mother hoped to return to Cuba someday, while her dad worked for Ford and eventually later got a job, thanks to a Latino friend, working on commission in the sales department at Goya until he retired.
One night, she says she’d overheard her parents discussing their money woes, saying they could no longer afford her all girls’ catholic school. The Academy of the Holy Angels had a good reputation and was attended by well-off families. Galán did not want to leave it. “There were even Jewish girls there. It taught me never to marginalize myself,” she told CNN Business.
She grew up among mostly Blacks, Jews and Latinos in New Jersey, in places like West End and Teaneck, and soon adopted not only book smarts, but street ones, too, especially when it came to business. By the age of 12, she showed signs of instinctively knowing how to play hardball when it came to her first job selling Avon products. When a local Avon woman spotted Galáns spunk, she offered her a low-end starting salary selling cosmetics door to door. Though she was interested, she didn’t exactly bite at the first offer. Galán, who had seen enough American television by then, used a line she’d heard and said that the deal “had to be 50/50 of her sales or nothing.”
She was hired.
Soon enough, Galán had saved so much money for her school tuition that she worried that her father would feel sad or somehow not good enough that his daughter could bring in the money faster than he could. In order to protect him, she made up a story: she wrote a letter in English that she had a won a scholarship and showed it to her parents. Since they couldn’t read English, she read it to them and she was able to put the money she earned at Avon towards her school tuition disguised as a scholarship.
I asked her what she thinks holds Latinas back from being all they can be in comparison to non-Latinas. “I think they’re afraid to be bigger than their fathers, brothers or mates. They think if I’m smaller, they’ll love me more. Therefore, diminishing themselves to make these men feel better.” The Rise of a Media Mogul
From her time at Seventeen and on, Galán used that gutsy spirit to work her way up in the media world. But as she journeyed this seemingly fairy tale-like story, “like a turtle,” she says, there were plenty of failures she had to overcome along the way. For all her successes, there were double, “if triple!” the failures, she assures me.
She graduated early and was accepted at Barnard where she met Aida Barrera, the first Latina executive producer in American TV, who was giving a talk at the school. After the two hit it off, Barrera offered her a researcher position in Texas and she decided to drop out of school much to her mother’s distress to pursue the job opportunity. She worked at TV stations in Austin, Boston and New Jersey, bringing more Latino stories into the mainstream, and eventually landed a job at CBS News at the age of 21.
It was at CBS that the legendary producer Norman Lear, who had a hand in selecting new leadership for Telemundo’s makeover, said to her: “Oh my God, you’re Latina, we should hire you!” Galán explains that being offered a job at a Spanish language television network was far from her ideal job. “It was not what my ego wanted,” she says. She liked working in mainstream American media and in English. She basically told Lear, no way. Lear told her she would be crazy to turn down the job offer, adding that the position could also make her a very rich woman.
Nelyism: Think like an Owner and Start a Side Hustle
At 22, still a bit rough around the edges, she accepted a job as a station manager at Telemundo and slowly worked her way up the corporate ladder. By the late-’90s Galán was named the network’s first female president of entertainment. “So, I went on to be employee 1 at Telemundo. Like employee 1 at Google when it was launched. And I went into that job acting like I was the owner,” says Galán.
Another piece of advice she gives: no matter where you work, treat the job as if you are the owner. Aside from the media business, she also learned about real estate and invested in buying properties that have allowed her a financial cushion during the ups and down of the media business. This know-how eventually became one of her most well-known
Nelyisms: Don’t buy shoes, buy buildings.
Galán eventually left Telemundo in 2001 when the network was bought out by NBC. Again, she used her business savvy and sold shows to networks like Fox, NBC and The WB. When asked by CNN in 2016 what her biggest break in business was, she said it was in 2004, when Rupert Murdoch wanted her to launch six channels in Latin America. She told him she’d do it if he outsourced it to her company, and he accepted her offer.
That deal gave a needed financial and publicity boost to Galán Entertainment which she originally launched in 1994, and has since then launched 10 television stations and produced over 700 episodes of television in English and Spanish.
Her side hustle finally became front and center.
Nelyism: Go Get Your Own Chips!
While that appearance on Celebrity Apprentice with Trump wound up getting her plenty of speaking gigs with Fortune 500 companies, it wasn’t enough for Galán. She knew she needed to do something more for women of color. “At this point in my career I already had money but I knew I needed to leave the world a better place,” says Galán. From the international profits of her television network and real estate investments, she was ready to give back to the community. She also wanted to study her community at a deeper level and really understand how it breathed, what made it tick, and what was holding it back.
A conversation with Kiss’ Gene Simmons, a costar on Celebrity Apprentice, really got her wheels turning. He said to her, “I feel like you are meant to do something greater. Why don’t you take some time off and come up with a bigger mission for your life?” After battling her self-doubts, Galán decided to go back to school in 2008 for a Masters and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her studies grounded her on how she could inspire entrepreneurship among women of color and her dissertation focused on minority women as the sleeping giant in the U.S. economy.
In2009 the Coca-Cola Company approached her to be on a decision-making board, she received information that would confirm what she had already known and seen coming. Through forecasts and studies they’d conducted, Coca-Cola knew that due to the slumping economy, Latino men in households would be losing their jobs and that Latinas would have to step up to the plate to bring in more household income. These women of color would therefore not only continue as heads of household with purchasing power and deciding what brands to bring in to their homes, but would also be major breadwinners as well.
Galán, who had years of experience in power positions, already knew that positions that paid in high figures weren’t going to be offered that easily to Latinas in white corporate America. And though she is a friend and fan of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, a role model for women, she knew that Latinas wouldn’t be doing any “leaning in,” since they’re not invited to these corporate settings in the first place. If Latinas and women of color wanted to make money, they would need to start their own businesses instead of waiting for job offers that might never come. Hence the Nelyism: To be Chosen, Choose Yourself First!
During this period of inward looking, she began exploring the complexity of Latinas’ purchasing power as the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs, yet their invisibility in this country’s mainstream. She asked herself how she could tell their story; how she could guide them, inspire them, toughen them up. The creation of the Adelante Movement and her book Self Made were Galán’s answers and a safe place for these women’s questions, dreams, and doubts.
When she was on Celebrity Apprentice in 2008, she never could have imagined Trump would be elected president. But here we are in 2019, women of color facing one of history’s greatest challenges in an adverse political climate. What can women of color do? “The most important thing we have in this country is our vote and our purchase power. We have to take that very seriously,” said Galán in a CNN interview.
Looking back at all she’s done, it’s evident that she’s been preparing all women for this moment throughout her career. First as a pioneer who did it herself; then as an advocate who took the time and energy to crystalize and articulate the lessons and insights she learned along the way. With her growing body of work, she has armed a generation of women of color with no-nonsense tools for radical self-reliance. If she can do it, she’s certain you can, too.