This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.
If you like Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's movies, you may want to thank Dany Garcia.
Garcia, 53, is more than just Johnson's strategic advisor and former manager. She's partnered with him on every step of his career from college onward, while building her own business empire with The Garcia Companies, a global brand development and management company.
Her company oversees a diverse portfolio with notable names like Acorns, ZOA Energy, Seven Bucks Productions, Teremana Tequila (which she co-founded with Johnson) and Garcia's new fashion brand, GSTQ. In 2020, Garcia also became the first female owner of a major American sports league, when she, Johnson and RedBird Capital Partners acquired the XFL for about $15 million.
She's also a professional bodybuilder, and Johnson's ex-wife: The pair married in 1997, and divorced in 2008. She's worked hard to shed that "ex-wife" identifier, especially since she and Johnson still work closely together.
"The reality is the moniker of 'ex-wife to a celebrity' is easy for people to understand, and it has a little salacious hook," Garcia tells CNBC Make It. "But you can't identify with that."
Instead, she says, she wants to be known for the professional career she's built. After graduating from the University of Miami in 1992, Garcia worked at Merrill Lynch, where she eventually became an associate vice president before starting her own wealth management firm, JDM Partners, in 2002. In 2008, she left that role to manage Johnson's growing Hollywood career.
That ambitious path began long before Garcia and Johnson met in college. "I started working at [age] 12 and worked through high school and college," Garcia says. "I always had these huge dreams that were so much bigger than everything around me."
Here, Garcia discusses meeting Johnson in college, building her own business empire and advice for her younger self:
I was born in Belleville, New Jersey, but the majority of my growing up was actually in Succasunna, New Jersey. We were one of the two Cuban families [there].
I was a middle child, and definitely very unique: all legs, no torso and big glasses. I ran track. I was a drum major for the marching band. I had, like, one really close best friend during high school.
My dad was 16 and my mom was 12 when they came over from Cuba. They had to learn the language. My father worked at a body shop for the majority of our life. He started sweeping floors and then, later on, became the manager.
I could just see the strain. My drive at a young age was: I'm going to be a millionaire and provide for my family. As I matured, it became: I want to build wealth to take care of my family.
We first saw each other in the weight room at the University of Miami. I was in my senior year on the varsity crew team, and he was in his freshman year, recovering from an injury playing football.
I was so impressed with his poise. I was like, that guy has an "it" [factor], even though he's walking around with kind of a curly, afro mohawk sort of thing going on. He just had something that was so magnetic and I was so intrigued.
At a bar where all athletes would go, I walked up to him, extended my hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Dany Garcia.' He was like, "Hi, I'm Dwayne Johnson." It was a like business meeting.
We were both into strength training and bodybuilding. We liked the same music. We both wanted more, to do more. He asked if I had a phone. I told him I did. He started to call me every day, after that.
Kudos to Joneswork [Garcia's public relations team] over the last three years for not getting mentioned as the ex-wife. It took a long time.
Not taking it personally is No. 1. I'm not an actor. People don't just know the name "Dany Garcia."
The second thing is: Who you are in the room defines what your future will be. When I'm in the room, I'm always Dany Garcia, the business partner. We used the word "manager" in the beginning, so the industry would be able to contextualize why I was taking so much ownership into decisions.
I always showed up as who I was and who I was meant to be, not letting anyone else's narrative interfere. That's important, because there are things you can control and there are things you can't control.
The great thing now is that I have my own platform and social media. I have allies now, compared to the past, where there was only press talking about you, which is a long-a-- haul.
I wish I could have told myself, "Yes, you are different, and you're going to be different all your life, and that is your superpower." The differences in what you see are the opportunities of what you want to create.
The other thing is to make decisions that build your happiness, even if they don't look like normal decisions. I've spoken to my daughter a lot about this. Being the only woman in the room, a chairwoman of a sports league, these positions have discomfort because no one's there.
But I've lived with discomfort for all my life. I have competed as a professional bodybuilder, and been judged for my physical appearance. I've won and I've lost.
Personally, when I get to the playing field of business, [that's my mindset]: I've already won so many games. I know discipline. I have been pushed to the edge — and come back — 10 times over. I've already been on the line.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Dany Garcia is Dwayne Johnson's strategic advisor and former manager.
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