The pause is understandable, and her answer is a long list. As president and CEO of design, project management and construction management company McKissack & McKissack, she has overseen her the company’s work on refurbishing the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, building the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2011 and, in 2016, completing one of the company’s largest project management tasks to date — overseeing the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
McKissack can trace her family’s history in building to her great-great-grandfather, who was brought to America as a slave in 1790.
“He was a builder and passed those skills down to my great-grandfather, who passed it down to my grandfather who, along with his brother, started our family business in Tennessee,” McKissack says.
That connection — which included her going to job sites with her father on Saturdays growing up — led McKissack to choose the family business, majoring in civil engineering at Howard University and going on to cut her teeth with Turner Construction and Dames & Moore.
“I learned the hard lessons of working in the construction industry in D.C.,” McKissack says of those years. “I was dealing with contractors, subcontractors and learning to motivate people to go in the direction you want them to go. Not everyone comes to a project wanting to do quality work.”
In 1990, McKissack stepped out on her own, building on the family business — and $1,000 — with McKissack & McKissack. The firm operates offices in D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami and, in 2015, reported revenue of $25 million.
In recent years, McKissack says, that revenue has become more diversified.
“Ten years ago, we were a government contractor and focused mainly on government contracts,” she says. “But we’ve decided to change that focus, to be more 50/50 public and private.”
Among those private clients? MGM Resorts International, which hired the firm as project manager for its MGM National Harbor project.
“To bring that online for them has just been amazing for us and has given us acclaim across the country,” she says. “It was a very complicated, exciting project. To see the opening, all the detail in that facility — I was very proud of my staff.”
McKissack can trace her recent business successes to a philosophy that she’s happy to recommend: Never take “no” for an answer.
“I don’t let anybody tell me, ‘No,’” McKissack says. “I think about my ancestors. They didn’t let society define who they were. They defined who they were and that’s how they came out of slavery. My family built some of the major structures in Tennessee. And now we’re working on the National Mall.”