Coming Full Circle: Carmen Tapio
by Leo Adam Biga
Emboldened by aspirational parents whose roots are in the Virgin Islands, North End Teleservices, LLC CEO, and owner Carmen Tapio has made a life and career of building businesses and pouring into individuals. The C-level executive brought diverse management skills acquired across industries to her North End Teleservices startup. Tapio started working on the phones at the age of 18, and it took her all over the world. With her passion for people, business, and community she has also served as a Chief Diversity Officer and Head of Corporate Responsibility.
As one of six daughters of a career air force military father, the former Carmen Baker grew up in far-flung places, even overseas. Her family moved to Nebraska when she was 9, and that’s where her real journey of personal empowerment began.
She embarked on a corporate career here that eventually took her overseas throughout Europe and other parts of the world before she came back in 2009 to do consulting work through her own Core Advantage Consulting. When the opportunity to make a generational difference in her adopted hometown presented itself, she ran with it. From the launch of North End in 2015 until now, the company’s become the largest Black-owned business in Nebraska and one of the largest employers, period, in North Omaha.
Nebraska is the state where she met her husband Bob Tapio, whom she married in 2016, and now has two stepchildren, Caitlyn and Josh Tapio, and their partners Bob and Anne. Tapio’s husband, Bob, has deep roots and a tremendous love for our community, Omaha, and the state. “None of what I do is on my own and he is every bit of a part of supporting me, enabling me, and encouraging me in everything that we do that is connected to North End.”
North End has been named as one of Inc. 5000’s fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. for the past three years.
Tapio is a 2021 Forbes 1000 List of Inspiring Entrepreneurs
Its growth will accelerate with the hiring of 200-plus additional employees this summer and fall construction starting on a new, $40-million-dollar corporate headquarters at 24th and Lake streets. That project is part of a larger mixed-use development being undertaken by Tapio’s real estate firm. Site plans include building apartments, single-family homes, a daycare center, food service, office, and retail space. The total cost of the new corporate digs plus mixed-use components is estimated at $65 million, making what she says is, “the largest private investment ever made in North Omaha.”
Until now, major North Omaha investments have included publicly sourced education, human services, arts, and housing-focused with few permanent jobs created. North End’s infusion of capital, living and better-than-living wage jobs into a community that stagnated from decades-long disinvestment is what Tapio hopes is just the start.
“We are making the investment because it has been challenging in this community for a long time and if somebody doesn’t go first, then it will never happen. I made the decision we are going to go first and make a private investment to help redevelop and re-catalyze this community. It’s needed to happen for a long time. The longer we wait the more expensive it’s going to get, and the less likely for it to happen. So, we’re making this investment now.”
She said while North End is doing its part to get things started, more private investment is needed to catch North Omaha up with where it should be. “The federal, state, and commercial contracting work we do brings dollars from a national level into this community and into the hands of the people that work in our organization, and that creates the economic churn that’s needed to build an economy. But it’s going to take a lot of investment to turn around what has been decades of blight and devastation. It’s going to take economy building. We can’t be the only investment and enterprise in the community. It’s going to take others to be willing to come and be a part of doing business here.”
Not every project needs to be large-scale. “It’s going to take financial investment even in small bites,” she said, “to collectively add up and make an impact.”
A case in point is The NET Work Spot which she opened earlier this year at 2516 North 24th Street. It evolved from a proposed project management space to a community-based concierge suite for entrepreneurs to office, meet, and network. It sits directly across the street from where the new North End Teleservices corporate headquarters will rise.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “We could have waited for this new development across the street to come out of the ground or we could start here in a little over a thousand square feet. There’s a significant investment made in this small space and hopefully, as you look around and experience it you can see that. The NET Work Spot is attracting people from all over the city, and they’re understanding that it and the development across the street are assets. That creates a vision in people’s minds that, okay, maybe I can do this, too.”
Everything Tapio is doing is tied to generating a critical mass of reinvestment in the community to make up for all the lost time, dollars, businesses, and opportunities that passed by North Omaha.
“It is building blocks and it is partnerships and it is others seeing the potential like we see it as well,” she said. “Our mission of creating jobs and changing lives is what’s driving that development. When you create economic independence and help people see a vision for what their lives can be, they see a different way.”
She’s aware the community’s watching and waiting for her words to become brick-and-mortar realities.
“When you create that vision, you have to fulfill the expectation. There’s nothing worse than making promises and giving hope and then not making good on that promise. We created an expectation, and shame on us if we don’t deliver by building good quality homes and apartments, bringing retail, food services, and childcare. That would be our fault.”
None of what she has in the works would be happening without North End.
“Our people are exceptional, and we are competing on a national level. This is what created the opportunity and generated the economic possibility for us to do this development. We are going to continue to grow and I’m excited about the things that are on the horizon.”
North End may be the ultimate example of her proclivity for positive thinking and building things.
“I usually step into things with curiosity, a belief in what’s possible. Throughout my career, I’ve done a lot of building, a lot of startups, and a lot of things for other people. That’s where some of the entrepreneurial mindset comes from because I can conceptualize what the end is going to look like. We knew this community needed jobs and partnered with Omaha Economic Development Corporation (through Core Advantage Consulting). The building North End is in today is one of their properties. They were looking to put that into use. In doing my homework I looked at a lot of possible ways to bring a significant number of jobs into the community. With my background, a call center made sense for creating an ecosystem for people to walk in the door with no, some, or related experience, and teach and elevate them. That was really the plan – to create jobs.”
As with any new venture, she said, “some believed, and others didn’t.” “I always knew because I’ve been in the industry a long time. I helped businesses go from zero to thousands. I knew it was possible. It doesn’t happen overnight. We’re approaching eight years. We started really hitting our stride in 2018. In 2023 the doors are blasting off, and we’re going to grow like crazy in the next one, two, three years.”
Getting to here from there took foresight and resilience. “I’m a good planner,” said Tapio. “Not only am I a strategist in terms of vision and getting to here, but I’ve done enough tactical work that I can chart the path. And now what I do is I lead my team and they chart the path to getting here.”
Despite a solid business plan, banks declined her application for loans to jumpstart North End until an alternative financing method – new market tax credits – became the catalyst for being able to move forward.
“You can’t be detracted or deterred. Well, I suppose you can, but then you don’t necessarily realize your dreams. You just have to take the hits and keep at it. I have strong faith as well. What people think or say about me doesn’t matter. My faith, belief in God, and my family’s belief in me instilled that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and why not, so go do it.”
A new project of her’s still in the planning phase is a permanent home for a nonprofit she started in 2021, Nebraska Black Women United (NBWU), to be located adjacent to the new North End digs.
“Once something starts in my head it’s just like, okay, it has to happen, it has to come to life.”
NBWU is her answer to the glass ceiling that holds many people back.
“The ceiling exists but it exists especially if we allow it to,” she said. “I’m not just talking about a glass ceiling for women, I’m talking about the glass ceiling for so many people in so many different ways. Nebraska Black Women United allows me and other women to share our knowledge, networks, and relationships and to support each other in the things we’re doing.
“What is critically important to me is that we continue to see mobility and progress of women, and families—whether in career or life or entrepreneurship. What happens in families has a wealth of implications for the generations following. It is statewide and beyond. We’ve been successful in placing women on boards.”
Tapio looks for opportunities to partner with other Black businesses. Black-owned Blair Freeman is the owner’s representative for the mixed-use project.
“Being a Black female developer, which I am, in partnership with a Black female owner’s representative who also happens to have the only Black female-owned construction company in Nebraska is pretty special and unique.”
In building The NET Work Spot, Tapio partnered with Black-owned Stable Gray and Monique Farmer’s Avant Solutions whom she has a long-standing relationship with. “We could do this anywhere and quite frankly post-COVID, we don’t have to build something physical and very expensive. Everybody went to work from home. We could take that path as well. But it’s too important to do that.”
“We want it to be substantial, accessible, and enjoyed by the entire community. And it is going to help catalyze and connect with everything else – North Omaha Music and Arts, the Union for Community Arts – and other great developments that are happening in the community. So, we’re going to go big or go home.”
She reminds aspiring entrepreneurs looking to make a difference that having diverse work experiences and skill sets can set one up to be a player. She points to herself as an example.
“You have to be somewhat good or at least knowledgeable at a lot of different things. I’ve worked in every functional expertise certainly in our industry and in our business – technology, business development, human resources. That can be the foundation of a management career. It allows you to understand what leadership looks like in those functional disciplines. While you don’t have to do the job yourself in that discipline every single day, you do want to know enough about it and surround yourself with talent. It’s just as important to know what you don’t want to do as to know what you want to do.”
“I would describe my leadership style as collaborative. I do believe in hearing the voices of my leadership team. I don’t expect people just to show up and say yes. I’m seeking their input, contributions, and their leadership. I’m a decisive leader as well.
My strengths are building things and developing talent as well as being strategic and tactical to create the vision and get the work done. But where I really like to spend my time is building new things and helping people realize their full potential.
“There’s really not anything I would say, “no you can’t do that”, to any of my team. You want my job, have at it, come and get it, you are welcome to it. If you want us to help you chart a path to get it, then that’s what we’re going to do.
I don’t believe in creating limits.
If you help people understand they have infinite possibility, then they will in most cases not disappoint.”
Her nephew Chris Phillips, North End Teleservices COO, embodies the company ethos of “you can do whatever you set your mind to,” one of many affirmations her parents gave her and his mother gave him.
“He’s been with us from the very beginning. His leadership is a tremendous part of who we are as an organization. He has helped shape our culture. He has everything to do with the strategy of our business and our people and clients love him. Chris has done every kind of job inside our organization. He set his sights on leadership and earned his way to his spot on our leadership team.” When Chris was promoted to COO of North End Teleservices in 2020, he joined the narrow demographic of the two percent of Black male C-Suite execs in the country.
North End values its people and provides pathways for professional development and advancement through apprenticeships, pathways to supervisory roles, and other leadership positions.
“We are big on apprenticeships because they add another level of credential for the individual. We do micro-academies with Metropolitan Community College. For example, we have a Customer Experience academy. You can come out of it as a certified customer experience professional.
We believe in building our own bench. We do a lot of promoting from within and elevating people quickly. We’ve had employees finish two-year degrees through our apprenticeships and follow a natural career path to supervisory positions.”
North End has provided transportation for employees who need rides to and from work. Once the new corporate home is complete, onsite daycare will help address that barrier for employees.
She attributes the unprecedented number of Black women in Omaha leadership to increased visibility and opportunity.
“The workforce is really competitive right now and I think organizations are taking different approaches to looking for talent. They’re seeking new voices in leadership and new opportunities are being created for that to happen. There’s still a lot more that needs to happen but there are some very talented Black women in our state and across the country that would find opportunities in Omaha to be attractive.”
Serving on boards – Werner Enterprises, Chair of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, Omaha Zoological Society, Peter Kiewit Foundation Trustee, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City – to name just a few, is another way Tapio extends her influence, advocacy, and expertise. “The boards I sit on are connected to my personal and professional passion. But I also bring a lot of thought and business leadership to the work I do on boards as well.”
Tapio is a 100 Black Women Legacy Award-winner
and WCA Tribute to Women honoree. She’s earned the Urban League of Nebraska’s African American Leadership Award for Business and was named 2021 Volunteer of the Year by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. She also received the Inspire Award and was inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame in 2022.
The more Black executives and entrepreneurs take public-facing leads in business and development, she said, the more people buy into the idea real change is afoot and they can be a part of it, too.
“People believe what they can see, and if we can do it, I can do it, they can do it, then we all can.”