How I'm Skirting the Rules

I Started My First Business at 20 Years Old—And Am Leveling the Playing Field for Other Women

Nathalie Molina Niño was coding before it was cool. Here is how the self-described misfit went from building websites to building multi-million dollar businesses, and founded BRAVA Investments to fund companies that impact women’s financial health.

BRAVA Investments founder Nathalie Molina Niño

BRAVA Investments founder Nathalie Molina Niño says being a tech person who was able to tell the stories of code in layman’s terms is one of the things that helped her become successful.

Nathalie Molina Niño jokes that she started her first company at just 20 years old quite by accident. Back in 1996, the South American’s only form of transportation as a student at the University of Colorado Boulder was a motorcycle. When winter ushered in the cold temperatures and snow, Nathalie decided there was no riding a motorcycle in the Rockies in January, and so she went to a local car dealership to make a trade. This everyday moment launched her entrepreneurial career.
Nathalie offered to pay for a car half in cash, and trade the other half by creating a website for the car dealership—her student job at the university’s computer labs had enabled her to learn how to code. To her surprise, the car dealer accepted. He was happy with her work and told friends, who told others. Before she knew it, she was building sites for big companies such as Colorado Lottery, and had more work than she ever thought possible.

Nathalie ended up loving the process, and she’s been starting companies in the tech space ever since. That is, up until about five years ago when she took a break to follow her passion for storytelling by getting a degree in playwriting at Columbia University. Then in 2012 Nathalie focused her storytelling efforts on elevating women-led businesses, co-founding Entrepreneurs@Athena at the Athena Center for Leadership studies of Barnard College. In 2015 she stepped in as chief revenue officer at PowerToFly, a company that connects women with jobs in tech, and led the launch of media mogul Nely Galán’s SELF MADE movement, whose message to women is to become financially self-reliant through entrepreneurship. Now Nathalie is launching her own baby, BRAVA Investments, to fund companies that directly impact the economic lives of women. Skirting the Rules caught up with Nathalie to find out how she gets things done, overcame impostor syndrome, and learned to turn the darkest moments into something beautiful.

BRAVA Investments is Skirting the Rules by cultivating an entirely new culture and ecosystem for funding companies that help improve women’s lives. For the last five years, I’ve focused on investing in women entrepreneurs and women-led startups with Entrepreneurs@Athena. It’s incredibly important work that I’m very grateful for. Yet I’ve also accepted that I’m incredibly impatient when it comes to change. I felt we needed to be doing even more. With Brava Investments, we focus on companies that have the ability to affect women in the world in a scalable way—regardless of whether or not they have a woman CEO or women on their board—to transform overall culture and give women more opportunity. To get funding, you need to prove to us that your company will have real outcomes that benefit women at scale.

My favorite example of a company we’re researching is one that feels, at first glance, like it wouldn’t fit at all. It’s a company called Curemark that’s developed the first-ever drug for kids with autism, and the FDA is fast-tracking approval for it to go to market. On the surface it might seem like autism mostly affects young boys. Yet if you view it as an economic issue, this drug can financially empower women. Let’s start with the research that shows that most marriages involving kids with autism end in divorce. If you look at divorce, women usually take on the majority of the financial burden for raising children. This illustrates that sometimes all a company has to do to elevate women is to simply exist in the world. They don’t need a public relations campaign about women’s empowerment, or have a board full of women. It just so happens that this company has a woman CEO named Joan Fallon, but that’s not why we are talking to them.

A time when I found the possible (a creative solution) within the impossible (against incredible odds) is when I was a moderator and organizer at a TEDx event  and I stepped in to help prevent an incredible man from crashing and burning during a talk about, of all things, rethinking failure. The speaker was a six-foot war correspondent, and the sight of this powerful man breaking down on stage because he was speaking about a massive heart attack that almost took his life—and challenged his belief that he was always supposed to be strong—took everyone’s breath away.

What ended up happening next in the room was pure magic. Before I had the chance to tell my stage manager what to do, three chairs appeared—just as I would have directed. Actor Isaiah Johnson was in the audience, and the three of us sat down to do an impromptu, Oprah-style interview to get the speaker back on track. He ended up being able to tell his story in such a raw and honest way that there was not a dry eye in the room. It was one of the most impactful moments in my life.

An example of how listening to my intuition has helped me was when I jumped up during that TEDx speech as the speaker was frozen and overcome with emotion to turn it into a conversation. For me, the human things that don’t have formulas have always been the hardest to navigate. When Google wanted their algorithms to work in Hebrew and Japanese, they called me to help figure it out. But emotions aren’t like math and codes, they aren’t linear. This moment couldn’t have been resolved by thinking my way through it, so I had to feel my way through instead. We were meant to talk about failure that day, and meant to see it live and in-person, to witness the overcoming of the fear of being exposed and falling down and get through it, together. This experience showed me that by letting our inner knowing lead, we are capable of turning the dark moments into something beautiful.

My secret talent is that I don’t get bitten by mosquitos, ever. I lived in the Amazon in Ecuador and everyone was getting eaten alive, but I didn’t have one bite. It drives people insane.

A woman is most powerful when she allows herself to be supported. That is not something I have been good at for most of my life. If you asked me five years before I stepped down from my last company about what I thought power was, I probably would have said its about outcomes, getting shit done, leading people like a “herding the cats” kind of leadership. I don’t think that is the case anymore. Allowing yourself to be supported means you work in a team environment rather than using a top-down approach. Sure, you might be the one with CEO title, but acting as part of a team rather than separate from it means you’re not as lonely and alone, and helps you to accomplish even more.

What I wish I had told my myself when I was starting out is that you don’t have to do it all alone. Of course you can do it alone, but that’s not really the question. The question is, “What’s more fun?”

My favorite skirt (a.k.a life hack or life rule) is to repeat this mantra whenever fear takes hold, “You are the source of your own supply.” My mentor Awilda Verdejo said these this to me when I told her about my paralyzing fear of starting new things. I was about to begin a new project and was suffering from a serious case of impostor syndrome. I thought, either I’d fail again or, if I succeeded, it would be just a fluke like the rest of my past successes had been. Repeating these words reminds me of my own power to make things happen, rather than attributing it to luck or outside forces.