McKissack & McKissack is a national architectural, engineering, and construction management firm with 27 years of experience.
Deryl McKissack, founder and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, is the fifth generation of her family to work in design and construction.
Her company is a continuation of the nation’s oldest African American design and construction firm and traces its beginnings to Moses McKissack.
Moses was brought to the United States from West Africa in 1790 as an enslaved person and learned the building trade while working as a brickmaker at a construction company.
He eventually received his freedom, started a family, and taught his son, Gabriel Moses II, the construction business. Moses II later became a famous craftsman and aided local firms with architectural drawings, design, and construction.
Moses II’s son, Moses III, also got his start in the construction business, founding the McKissack Company in 1905 and operating it with his brother, Calvin. They became the first licensed Black architects in the Southeastern United States and designed many of the historically Black colleges and universities in the region.
In 1990, with a shoestring budget of $1,000, Deryl started McKissack & McKissack. Today, the firm is working on over $15 billion in projects nationwide.
We caught up with her to find out more about the new generation carrying on this legacy.
What inspired you to start your firm?
Starting my business was 50% passion, maybe more. I had a burning feeling on the inside that I just definitely wanted to do something on my own and see if I can make it successful.
I was drafting architectural drawings under my father’s guidance by the time I was 6-years-old and was looking to build upon my family’s legacy in my own way.
After experiencing racism and sexism, I sought to build a firm that would create opportunities for minorities and women to be successful and work in safe and inclusive environments.
What do you most attribute your longevity to?
I’ve worked extremely hard to build a good reputation and that has been my backbone. We have expanded into great locations and have had so many wonderful opportunities to expand people’s lives through the range of projects we’ve completed. Having a good reputation is what I’ve been striving for for many years.
To be a minority, especially a Black woman growing up in the industry, we weren’t expected to do much. We weren’t expected to have major projects that made a difference or projects that changed the face of cities or how Americans looked at history.
Creating and maintaining meaningful relationships and incorporating the latest advances in technology into our projects helped bridge the gap between myself and others.
The fact that McKissack & McKissack has been able to work on various projects that matter, deliver on those projects, and keep our clients happy means a lot. It’s made us a national firm.
When I started the firm, I didn’t plan to go outside of a 30 mile radius of DC. I only wanted to travel on an airplane for leisure. Now we have offices in Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and Austin.
In what ways are you working to increase the number of Black professionals in the Architectural, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry?
Our industry is very traditional in the sense that it’s run by white males. Company culture was not even thought about when I started 30 years ago. I was told to put my head down and do the work. That sentiment has completely changed.
People realized maybe 15 years ago that they’ve got to build a better culture – a culture of respect. We definitely want to get more women and people of color interested in the AEC industry.
I’m on the executive board of the ACE Mentor Program which starts with high school students getting them interested in STEM and engineering to help fill that pipeline of talent.
We’ve recently expanded the program where we’re providing high school students in their Junior and Senior years and college students internships with the hope that they will come and work with us upon graduation.
I’m also on the board of the organization, Living Classrooms, where we work with elementary kids to get them interested in STEM.
In what ways does ESG play a role in your business decisions?
ESG is no longer optional. It is an increasingly important lens for companies to look at what it means to do things the right way. It boils down to running the kind of mission-driven company where people want to work and clients are proud.
Everyone right now wants sustainable buildings and materials. It used to be that this was something extra like an add-on service. Now it’s incorporated into everything that we do.
ESG benefits every company by saving clients money, increasing productivity, fostering a ‘team player’ atmosphere, encouraging a strong sense of pride in work, and turning obstacles into assets.
Who inspires you? Why?
There is something about high-achieving people that inspires me. I admire the way they are able to stay focused and achieve their goals despite difficult circumstances.
What do you do to relax?
Bike riding and watching football.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
You have to deliver. Under promise and over-deliver. You have to be a trustworthy partner to your clients and that comes with a lot of hard work.
Your product or service is one thing but as an entrepreneur, you also have to consider the administrative piece – counting your money, having lawyers, and insurance for your employees.
All of these things encompass entrepreneurship. Stay determined and disciplined and you will reach your goals.
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