Women and minorities are profoundly underrepresented in the architecture, engineering and construction industry. Bureau of Labor statistics tell a disturbing story. Yet these are the workers who build the water, rail, road and power systems. They erect our schools, hospitals and homes too, as well as the stores, public buildings, industrial facilities and airports used by people of every race, color, creed and age.
These structures must reflect the people who are using them, and we are a nation of many minorities. To change this equation, minority-led AEC businesses must prosper and grow. We all bring different perspectives, significant talent and innovative approaches based on our cultures and backgrounds to these projects—new ideas and approaches that will help us not only thrive as an industry but make our work better too.
So how can minority-led businesses prosper and grow? Minority businesses need access to sustainable work, and to win that work and execute, they need skills and tools that, in truth, require years of experience to master. That’s why Clark Construction developed its Strategic Partnership Program in 2006 with the help of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. It’s an intensive, executive MBA-style program for minority AEC business leaders to address areas there they lack training or need further development.
Clark is one of our most trusted partners. Together, our firms have delivered projects worth billions of dollars over the last two decades, including museums, sports venues, mixed-use developments, hotels, government facilities and more. As a Black woman and founder who started a business in 1990 with one employee—just myself—they asked me to speak to SPP alumni and current students about my AEC industry experiences at their 15th anniversary conference last month. Several thousand AEC professionals attended.
Clark asked me to discuss how I founded and built my own business. But as all of you know, we are all unique. We all approach things differently and can’t just mimic someone else. We all have original thoughts and our own destinies and purpose. Yet as a minority, many of us have come to realize we have to always be better, do better and never let up. So, I’ve spent a significant amount of time on finding my purpose and walking in that purpose daily. With the luxury of hindsight, here is what I told Clark’s SPP leaders I’ve prioritized—points that all business leaders building businesses may find helpful.
I’m often asked how my great-great-grandfather started as a slave and today our company has helped build some of the most iconic structures in our nation. How did we navigate from slavery through the Jim Crow lynching and the Civil Rights movement beatings to where we are today? How did we withstand the many evils and dark influences we were up against? And today, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, I’m constantly asked how we have won such highly visible, complex and monumental projects. I believe it’s because my family and I have been mindful, aware and true to we were and are—and true to our purpose. In my case, that purpose is to deliver building and infrastructure projects that enrich people’s lives and empower communities to flourish. Every job we complete successfully fuels my confidence and determination. So, you must identify your purpose and make it your North Star.
People will label you, mislabel you, steer you wrong and project their own circumstances on you. Don’t let them. People don’t define you; your purpose defines you. All our families have had to overcome challenges—just like my great-great-grandfather who came to this country enslaved. It is unfathomable that they made it given the atrocities they had to overcome. But in the face of controversy and strife, they did not allow others to define them. If my ancestors had allowed society to define them, they would have remained slaves and servants. But they defined themselves as leaders and achievers and navigated their own path to success.
We all have had to stare down the barrel of a multitude of ‘noes’ and learn how to persevere and turn them into ‘yeses.’ I’ve done this time and again and have never let a “no” discourage me from trying again. One of my favorite stories pertains to the U.S. Treasury Building. Robert Rubin, secretary of the Treasury at the time, introduced me to Wes Hawley, the department’s head of procurement. At our first meeting, he told me he didn’t have any work for me. So, for two years straight I would visit Mr. Hawley every two weeks to see if that changed. Finally, he told his staff, “give her some work. I’m tired of seeing her here!” So, they gave us some design review tasks on a new electrical distribution system they were installing. Two days after signing the contract, I received a call around 10 p.m. and the caller said, “I’m looking for Mr. McKissack.” I thought it was a prank call, so I said, “he’s dead.” Then the caller said, “lady, this is the Secret Service, and we need to talk to Mr. McKissack.” I started laughing and said, “oh yeah, tell me another joke.” He said, “the Treasury Building is on fire.” So, I turned on the TV and there was the Treasury Building—going up in smoke. I grabbed the phone and said “OMG, how can I serve my country?” He said, “get Deryl McKissack down here as soon as possible.” This was the beginning of a 12-year, multi-million-dollar contact for our company as we restored and renovated the Treasury Building. Stay the course—your course—and never give up.
Decision-makers—both in the public and private sectors—are not always who you think they are; there are other team members on their staffs that can help you, as you can see from my Treasury Building story. Be persistent and be nice to everyone you meet along your career journey.
Take advantage of all educational program agencies and primes offer (like Clark’s SPP program!) —or send someone. Obtain MWBE, DBE and SBA certifications at the federal level and their equivalents on the state and local levels; these qualifications allow you to partner with primes and other suppliers and can increase your business exponentially. Join every association that helps you network in your area and nationally if possible—minority and majority!
Don’t look down on “low-hanging fruit”—it’s an unfortunate term and I have great dislike for it. Nothing is low-hanging fruit, in my humble opinion. But know how to pick the right opportunity based on your strengths and expertise, and if a job isn’t right for you, recommend someone. More often than not, there will be quid pro quo for passing an opportunity for work on to someone else. And if there is not, lesson learned. Find someone else next time.
As a minority supplier, we’re at a disadvantage at times because of racism in the AEC industry. Often, the industry perception is that minority firms don’t have the resources to deliver major projects. In truth, we lack access to sustainable opportunities—the kind of opportunities that come from business contacts who become friends and make deals that are sealed over dinners and golf games at private clubs. We are competing against giants—billion-dollar majority firms. It’s like David and Goliath. We must execute with excellence to get hired again, and that’s exactly what we do. And even then, we’re often asked to prove ourselves again with detailed presentations and extensive recommendations to substantiate we are suitable for a job.
We all make mistakes and it’s OK. But own up to any mistake immediately and come up with a solution early on. Offer apologies when they are called for and never let an issue linger. It will only grow and be harder to resolve in the long run.
Our business needs will change and evolve over time. Some people will grow with our firms, and others will be scaffolding that support us during specific periods. But they may not be a good fit for the future. Finding the right people is difficult, time consuming and even a little uncomfortable because to truly understand who you are hiring, you may have to ask some difficult questions. We must practice becoming an expert at it and hire people based on the strengths they bring to our businesses. We must develop solid, repeatable HR processes. Frustration in business comes from the lack of process. Clearly define positions with a thorough job description—complete with expectations of authority, deliverables and the rules of engagement with the rest of the organization.
I wasn’t always a fan of upgrading to the latest and greatest tech systems as soon as they were released. Then I hired Andrew Corn, a remarkable—and remarkably prescient—vice president of IT. He convinced me to buy into tech whole hog in 2019, and he was so right! When the pandemic hit, we were ready to go virtual and did so seamlessly. Because of our superb tech system, everyone on our team had all the tools they needed to work remotely and never miss a deadline. For those who don’t have an inhouse IT professional, hire a tech consultant.
One of the reasons I founded my own company in 1990, when I was still in my twenties, is because I was fed up with being the only woman in the room at meetings and not having a chance to participate in the conversation. Even if I did manage to get a word in edgewise, I wasn’t being heard. My comments didn’t register with all the other men. Remember what I said above: new ideas and approaches will make our work better. Today, 51% of our population is female. All perspectives are critical to the success of a project. That’s why I make sure everyone on my team is heard and so should every minority business. We must be inclusive.
There you have it—the principles I live by day in and day out, not just at work but in every aspect of my life. It’s part code of conduct, part belief system and totally universal. Anyone can embrace these standards—regardless of their gender, race or creed. If you choose to use them, may you prosper and thrive as I have and build a business that will enrich people’s lives and empower communities to flourish.