In a wide-ranging conversation, CEO Nina Janopaul and CEO-elect Carmen Romero reflect on APAH’s achievements, lessons learned, and APAH’s future
Carmen: With just 60 days to go, I want to make sure we take some time to really talk about lessons learned. You’ve been such an incredible partner and mentor to me throughout my time at APAH. And I’m so proud of the things we have achieved together.
Nina: I am really excited about your leadership, Carmen, and the future of APAH. I guess if I think about lessons learned, and this is a real advantage of working in the nonprofit sector, is the power of a strong Board of Directors. Early on, I’d find really smart Board members and I just sort of glued myself to them. When I was still working with youth hostels, I had a Board member who was a bank executive and I was just a sponge— “tell me what’s going right, tell me what’s going wrong, tell me what we need to do next.” You can’t know everything. So, you just have to jump in and get good people on your side—that’s been so important to APAH with every project—finding the right people. I think that was something I learned early on.
Carmen: I could not agree more. Having a strong Board, one that serves as a very special think tank, has been such so critical.
Nina: They are so key to our success. I remember working with my very first Board chair, Carolyn Settles, at a time when APAH was dealing with so many really existential challenges. She said to me, “Nina, if there is one thing you do, I need you to be transparent. If you have a crisis, share it with us, if there is a risk, let’s talk about it.” And that’s what we did. And I think it has served us really well.
Carmen: I think that transparency is really important. Everything in real estate development is inherently risky, right? There are times when you have to take the plunge with a deposit or make a big commitment before everything is totally teed-up. But because of that commitment to open dialogue with the Board about the risks and how we are mitigating them, we can take those risks and feel comfortable that we’re moving forward together, with the Board’s support in everything we’re doing.
Nina: The other thing I would emphasize is listening. Leadership is about listening. So, when the county manager says something is really important—whether it’s a specific project or whatever—you pay attention. Learning to listen to people that know more than I do. I think that practice has made us a responsive and nimble organization. We threw ourselves into it and other people caught that energy. And that gave us the positive reinforcement that we were doing something right and also attracted other people that care about the same things.
Carmen: Partnering with people who share our mission has been so important. The strength of our partnership with Virginia Housing, with Arlington County—so many people and organizations helping APAH do incredible and innovative work because they believed in the vision and mission.
Nina: One of the things that has just amazed me is how many resources are out there and how many people want to help. I remember walking Susan Dewey [CEO of Virginia Housing] through our Columbia Grove property, laying out these big financing challenges we were facing. She said, “well, we have a special preservation fund that could help” and Virginia Housing gave us the award that let us refinance that property in the midst of the recession.
Sometimes, early on, it could be discouraging, but I became wide-eyed at how many people out there wanted APAH to succeed. It affirmed for me that this was the right place for me to be. APAH faced some real challenges, and every time somebody stepped up and help. I love that people cared about APAH, cared about our success, and were willing to problem solve in creative ways.
Carmen: I think that external focus on partnership is reflected within APAH, as well. I so appreciate your confidence in, and support for, me and the example you set of excellence and hard work. You have always been a good fiduciary of APAH’s resources. But at the same time, you were still able to create a place with a very entrepreneurial spirt where we could really take on some cutting-edge projects.
Nina: I like that. You have really picked up on both of those pieces, Carmen, both the fiduciary concept and thinking big. I think sometimes it’s hard to hold both of those concepts together at the same time.
Carmen: I agree, but thanks to those partnerships—internal and external—we’ve been able to move forward with confidence. So many times I can remember calling you, Nina, and asking, “are you sure? are you OK with this?”. And the answer was always “of course, this is what we have to do.” I think probably that’s what I’m going to miss the most—that day-to-day partnership that protects APAH and keeps APAH strong as a good fiduciary, but also you being such an innovation partner.
As I look ahead, I am really focused on how to replicate the sense of purpose and mission that you have so instilled, that calls us to take risks because we would never have done any of this if we weren’t willing to get out of our comfort zone.
Nina: Thank you, Carmen. I so look forward to cheering you on as you lead APAH, deepening our racial equity work, supporting our residents’ success in new and more effective ways, and, building new affordable homes that are so desperately needed throughout the DMV.
Carmen: And thank you, Nina. At every step of the way you have been there as a partner for me and a partner for the whole person. When I started working at APAH, I had a 2-year-old and it was a big journey. But, at every step, you were there for me, supporting me, and helping make sure that I was ready for this transition. It is a gift to APAH that you have set up a smooth succession, but I view it as a gift to me personally as well.
Nina Janopaul’s Leadership Lessons
Find the Right People—and let them help you.
Listen—the single most important thing.
Be transparent, own your challenges and mistakes.
It’s all about partnership, with the community, your Board, your residents, and your team inside and outside the organization.
Manage risk but think big.
Believe in the mission—our work truly matters.