Report puts Nebraska near bottom of the pack for female business ownership

By: - May 15, 2023 5:15 am

Networking, mentorship and being where “business is done” help develop women business owners, says Carmen Tapio of North End Teleservices. Her recently opened NET Work Spot near 24th and Lake Streets is a way, she says, to help grow women-led businesses. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — When seeking financing early on for a company that today is climbing the Inc. 5000 national list of fastest-growing companies, Carmen Tapio faced questions that remain burned in her memory.

One banker, she said, asked: Does your husband know what you are doing? 

She said she was characterized as risky.

“Not the business, but you,” Tapio recalled the financial lending agent saying.

Carmen Tapio, inductee into Greater Omaha Chamber Hall of Fame (Courtesy of Omaha Chamber)

Tapio, who went on to launch North End Teleservices, a company that reports more than 1,000% growth over the past three years, said she doubts that men face the same gender-based and “sexist“ reception when seeking capital to start business ventures.

She said she was not particularly surprised to see that an analysis by online small business lender OnDeck ranked Nebraska near the bottom of the pack for female business ownership. There’s much room for progress in all states, she said.

Authors of the OnDeck report leaned on the Census Bureau’s Annual Business Survey to calculate the percentage of businesses within each geographical area that are owned by females.

The findings showed Nebraska with the third-worst standing among states, with 15.79%.

Topping the rankings was Alaska, with 24.7%, and Colorado, with 23.8%.

Ranked behind the Husker state were South Dakota and West Virginia.

The climate in Nebraska is changing — or I think, more accurately, wants to change.

– Carmen Tapio, founder of North End Teleservices and chair of Greater Omaha Chamber board

Tapio, who also chairs the board of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said conditions for women to succeed as business owners are improving, to a degree. She cited work of the women-led Proven Ventures fund.

“The climate in Nebraska is changing — or I think, more accurately, wants to change,” said Tapio.

Erica Wassinger of Proven Ventures, a Burlington Capital program. (Courtesy of Proven Ventures)

Erica Wassinger is one of three women on the four-person Proven Ventures team that has invested in a dozen startups within the past few years. Two-thirds of the capital has been invested into companies led by women, Wassinger said, and more than half has gone to people of color at the helm.

That ratio is not the norm, however, Wassinger said. She said Nebraska is lacking for startup collaboratives whose mission is to work with and help break down barriers for budding entrepreneurs.

“There is a huge gap,” she said, noting that the Omaha Chamber no longer has the Startup Collaborative, which she had led before helping to start Proven Ventures, a Burlington Capital program. 

Wassinger said the startups her team has chosen to invest in likely reflect an atypical portfolio because women on her team make up 75% of the people “writing the checks.” 

Objective data drives their choices, she said, but the team likely places greater value on nontraditional attributes that tend to level the playing field. 

Josie Schafer, who heads the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research, said that Nebraska’s business ownership reflects a diversity lag overall. She said 87% of Nebraska businesses are owned by white, non-Latinos while the state share of population that’s white, non-Latino is 77%.

Disproportionate leadership opportunities for women and other groups has wide-ranging impact for a state economy, she said. Lack of representation at the top can translate into lack of services to meet needs of certain populations, Schafer said.

“It may send a negative signal to business owners in other states about how included and successful they can be here in Nebraska,” she added.

Tapio sees progress with organizations such as the Grow Nebraska Women’s Business Center, created in 2021 to help women entrepreneurs with resources and training.

She believes that the success of women in leading and launching their own companies is rooted in networking and “showing up” where business gets done.

That led her to open the new “NET Work Spot,” a coworking storefront where entrepreneurs are encouraged to share ideas. She hopes to open four other such places around Omaha.

The NET Work Spot aims to provide fertile ground for women and other entrepreneurs to start and grow business. (Courtesy of North End Teleservices)

Across the street from the first NET Work Spot, which is near 24th and Lake Streets, Tapio expects to break ground in the next year on a new multimillion-dollar mixed-use campus. The development will be anchored by the new corporate headquarters for her company.

Founded in 2015, North End Teleservices is the state’s largest Black-owned business and is No. 610 on the Inc. 5000 list, which ranks the country’s fastest-growing private companies.

She said that while encountering plenty of rejections along her way, perseverance helped, as did alternative funding sources such as new market tax credits.

Business mentoring, particularly by other women, is critical to see shifts in female-led and -owned companies, she said.

“We have to engage, use our voices and be willing to extend a hand to shape how business gets done to be more inclusive of women,” she said.

Concern about entrepreneurial opportunities in Nebraska sparks national grant

OMAHA — After a recent study revealed concern about Nebraska’s climate for entrepreneurs, and who is not a part of the inner circle, a national organization awarded a $310,000 grant to probe deeper.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research and the Nebraska Business Development Center partnered in the earlier 2021 report, which led the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to sponsor further investigation through its Inclusive Ecosystems Grant program.

Josie Schafer, director of CPAR and a primary researcher, said surveys and data collected during the earlier study reinforced Nebraska’s struggle over the past several years to attract and grow new businesses.

Josie Schafer, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (Courtesy of UNO)

For example, a range of stakeholders was asked to rate their organization’s efforts to grow entrepreneurship in Nebraska. On a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being not at all well, the median response was 21.

The share of Nebraska’s population that started a new business in 2020 was reported to be .27% — less than any of its neighboring states — and down from a state high of .37% in 1998.

The report also noted the Blueprint Nebraska report of 2021, which defined the Nebraska economy as having “low levels of entrepreneurship … and innovation.” 

While efforts to grow entrepreneurs are underway with some success, Schafer said, the earlier study revealed a support system that in some ways is “disconnected” and not tapping all potential opportunities.

One of the entrepreneurs interviewed for the study said a lack of diversity in the state’s business networks limits outreach and access to new entrepreneurs. “Nebraska has an underground entrepreneur ecosystem that you have to go to and meet people to learn who is who.” 

Of the new research phase, Schafer said, it will offer evidence of how businesses are born in the state, with a focus on who is included in the process. It is expected to offer information to help build entrepreneurialism equitably and to grow the state economy.

Chhaya Kolavalli of the private, nonpartisan Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation said the grant is aimed at bringing focus to a less-studied area of research: the impact of systemic forces on entrepreneurial ecosystems.

— Cindy Gonzalez, Nebraska Examiner senior reporter

A map of female owned businesses
Online small business broker OnDeck compiled figures to show female business ownership. (Courtesy of OnDeck)


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.