He’s bridging global cultures
Nico Nava wants to take your brand global. The first-generation immigrant and Northeastern graduate has made a specialty of bridging cultures—from brand managing a cake business in Thailand to working as a coach for pageant contestants around the world.
Nico Nava, a graduate of Northeastern University’s D’Amore McKim School of Business. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University
If you had to isolate at any point during the COVID-19 pandemic, what did you do to pass the time? Binge “Selling Sunset”? Take naps? Catch up on the latest Sally Rooney novel or tackle “Moby-Dick,” if you were feeling ambitious?
Nico Nava ran a beachside focus group.
It was 2021 and Nava, a 2019 master’s degree (project management) and 2022 MBA graduate of Northeastern University’s D’Amore McKim School of Business, was doing freelance consulting for Calowie, a startup selling prepackaged, low-calorie dessert cakes in specialty markets in Bangkok. After months of lockdown, Nava was eager to fly to Thailand to visit the proprietor, his friend and business school classmate Sidaporn Tongsoontorn (Pam) Sidaporn, and to see Calowie’s factory and business operations. Instead of flying into Bangkok, which would have required a 15-day hotel stay under the nation’s quarantine policies at the time, Nava went to Phuket, on Thailand’s southern tip. There, “you could leave your hotel; you just couldn’t leave the island,” he remembers.
Nava was tasked with figuring out how to break Calowie into foreign markets, including the U.S. and other parts of Asia, and he suddenly found himself in an idyllic laboratory setting to do some product testing. People were in Phuket quarantining from “all over the world,” he says. “There were Europeans and Americans and a British guy, and a few people from Thailand.”
Nava became friendly with the small, globally representative quarantine pod, and Sidaporn mailed product samples for them to try. “They were giving me the real lowdown,” he says, “and it turned out some products were resonating a lot better than others.”
Everyone loved Calowie’s strawberry flavor. The sweet potato cakes were off-putting to European palates. Matcha was polarizing, and red velvet was a flop. The surprise hit for the entire group was black sesame. Most of his tasters “had never had it before, but they’re like, what’s this? This is great.”
Nava came out of his beachside quarantine with new friends and some valuable consumer insights. “I’m getting all the data that I need and I’m enjoying it too,” he says of the experience.
“Enjoying it too” is vital to the way Nava, 35, has designed his business career; his brand of project management has little to do with the stuffy images of Excel spreadsheets and shared calendars that the term can conjure. Stasis is not in his nature or his background; video-chatting on Zoom, he’s all smiles and bounce, with a slight, buzzy frame which, nevertheless, fills the screen through sheer presence.
His professional priorities are less the “what” of his gigs—which have ranged from brand management for law firms and dentist offices to wedding planning, beauty pageants, a Filipino arts festival, and even TV specials—but the “how.” He likes to work the levers behind the scenes, making key decisions and delivering blunt feedback with a smile. His professional lodestar, he says, is Nigel Kipling, an art director at a major fashion magazine in the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” played by Stanley Tucci. In the film, Nigel is a loyal deputy to editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep’s Anna Wintour stand-in.
“He runs the show technically, but he doesn’t have the title,” Nava says. “But he’s the person able to say, ‘This is good. This is not.’ I wanted to be that person. So what’s the career path?”
That wasn’t immediately clear. A first-generation immigrant from the Philippines, Nava came to the United States at 15 with his family and settled in California. In high school, he gravitated toward “anything creative” — musical theater, choir, photography. “I just jump in the boat wherever it’s fun,” he says.
After graduation, he worked in fashion retail, becoming a top seller for Banana Republic in his teens, and volunteered for organizations including LA Pride and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. He went to college late and completed an undergraduate degree in communications and public relations in 2016. Along the way, he took on a variety of side gigs, wedding planning and fundraising for area nonprofits.
“I realized there was something in me that, I like to put things together,” he says. “When we have a family party, or my friends have an outing, it’s always me putting it together.”
That revelation led him to project management—a jack-of-all-trades profession where Nava could put both his people skills and organizational acumen to use, channeling his inner Nigel Kipling to get projects over the finish line. D’Amore McKim had one of the only graduate degrees for project management with a STEM designation in the country, which Nava wanted.
After beginning the program online from Los Angeles, he was taken enough with the university’s leafy, centrally-located campus that he dropped his freelance commitments on the West Coast and came to Boston to complete the capstone project for his master’s degree in 2019. I thought, “I’ll go to Boston and check it out for three months and come back right away,” he says. “I liked it a lot, so I stayed a little bit more,” nearly a year.
Through Northeastern, he took courses on managing virtual projects (poised, in 2019, to become a valuable skill set) and global projects—codifying an aptitude for bridging cultures he had honed as a first-generation immigrant. His favorite part of the MBA coursework was an International Field Study in Portugal, led by Professor Ravi Sarathy.
“At Northeastern we learned not to be ‘culture-centric’—as in, my culture is better than yours.” For Calowie, the Thai baked goods company, that meant “applying my Western take onto their products, but also wanting to make sure that I’m keeping their core philosophy as a Thailand brand,” he says. “You have to look at it from a perspective of, so how is it actually being perceived?”
That question became the operative one for the latest side gig he’s developed over the past few years: as a beauty pageant coach. It started in 2018, when he took a job coordinating a red carpet for “The People’s Queen,” a documentary series about beauty pageants that ran for a season on Amazon.
He befriended one of the contestants, Katrina Dimaranan, who was traveling to compete in an international pageant in Poland. He started advising her virtually — helping her choose jewelry, practicing posing, and scouting the competition landscape. “I knew some of her competitive advantages over others and what made her different,” he says. He helped with the public speaking portions and researched past winners, to see if there were any common threads. He found a lot of his project management skills being brought to bear, overseeing many disparate parts to achieve a singular goal: winning.
Diamranan won first-runner up, and Nava started formally coaching her. In 2021, Diamaranan, also a former contestant on the reality TV show “Love Island USA,” won first runner-up in the Miss Universe Philippines competition. This year, Nava will be coaching for his first male pageant client, competing in Mr. Canada.
Before becoming immersed in the international pageant scene, “I had a total misconception of what pageantry was,” he says. “It’s not taken seriously, in a way that is subjective to women. A lot of people think women are being objectified for showing up in swimsuits.”
But that notion of pageants as regressive and chauvinist, he contends, is a ‘culture-centric’ notion of its own—the sort that Northeastern trains against. In Nava’s native Philippines, pageant contestants are viewed more as sports-esque, hometown heroes, with contestants representing local pageant camps. In Latin America, they’re platforms for women to speak out about social issues. In 2018, Spain sent a transgender contestant, Angela Ponce, to compete in Miss Universe.
Nava plans to continue with pageants, and he’s moved back to Los Angeles to do more buttoned-up work during the day—as a project manager in marketing for Wilshire Law Firm, a large personal injury firm in California. “Today I’m coordinating photo shoots for the lawyers,” he says with his characteristic enthusiasm. Even in that relatively staid office milieu, “every day is different,” he says.
For a guy like Nava, that’s the best case for a career in project management.
Schuyler Velasco is a Northeastern Global News Magazine reporter. Email her at