Nely Galán’s first job in media was not an accident, but it was the result of a mistake: Galan, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when she was a child, was falsely accused of plagiarism at her Catholic high school. Her parents urged her to ask for forgiveness, even though she’d done nothing wrong.
She didn’t listen. Instead, she wrote a sardonic essay to Seventeen magazine about the experience — which nabbed her an unpaid guest editorship at the magazine in New York City, the publication’s youngest-such guest editor.
The nun at her school also rescinded her accusation. Galán got an A.
“I’m not brave, naturally, but when I push myself to take action, then sometimes, not always, but sometimes something magical happens,” Galán tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands now. “And I think that is the theme of my life.”
Years of work and strategy took Galán from the Seventeen offices to TV stations in Austin, Texas, Boston and New Jersey. Then she struck out on her own as head of an eponymous production company.
Though she “didn’t make a penny” on her own for several years, Galán didn’t stop, using her multicultural background not just to fill a niche but to bring more Latino stories into the mainstream. In the late-’90s she was named Telemundo’s first female president of entertainment.
“I have had to act as if I’m someone else many times,” channeling someone else’s confidence, Galán says. Sooner or later, “you create your own voice, that is one of your voices in your head that is empowered.”
Galán shares the same advice with other women: “If you feel like you can’t stand up to someone, make believe you’re me.”
• For more on Nely Galán’s inspiring journey, subscribe to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now.
Galán left Telemundo after the network was purchased by NBC in 2001, and then she sold shows to Fox, NBC and The WB, among others. Her fierce business acumen caught the eye of NBC again when they offered her a slot as a contestant on the first season of the Celebrity Apprentice in 2008.
That turn landed her speaking gigs with Fortune 500 companies and started her thinking about how to inspire entrepreneurship among other women of color. This year, Galán wrote Self Made, published in May, about creating your own wealth and power. And she leads the self-help Adelante Movement (or “move it forward” in Spanish).
“The starting point of the race is you have to acknowledge that no one’s coming to save you,” she tells PEOPLE, “and that you could save yourself.”