Media Coverage

Media Coverage
February 27, 2024

Deryl McKissack Builds on the Foundation of her Family’s Five-Generation Legacy in Construction

Bizwomen The Business Journals
Discover how Deryl McKissack, President and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, transformed a $1,000 investment into a national architecture, engineering, and construction-management firm managing over $15 billion in projects. Explore landmark undertakings like the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture and the Obama Presidential Center. Learn from her 5-generation family legacy in construction.

Deryl McKissack’s ties to the design and construction industry span multiple generations of her family, dating back all the way to the post-Civil War era.

In fact, the president and CEO of McKissack & McKissack is the fifth generation of her family to work in that industry.

Today, the national architecture, engineering and construction-management firm she founded in 1990 with just $1,000 currently manages more than $15 billion in projects nationwide, including landmark projects such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture and the Obama Presidential Center. The firm also led the construction and served as architectural firm of record for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“When I started, I had a bit of a business plan,” McKissack said with a laugh. “I had no clients yet, so I spent some time writing down the names of 300 people I believed should know about us. By the time I made it through about half of that list, we had more work than I ever imagined, and it’s grown from there.”

Grow it did: Today, McKissack & McKissack has seven offices in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Baltimore; Dallas, Houston and Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles. The firm has won numerous awards for its work and employs about 140 people.

But for McKissack, the journey is far from over as her firm enters its 34th year of business. Her original vision has expanded to include several new important initiatives to help other women and minorities find a home in the same industry in which she has found huge success.

“We still need more Black talent in our industry. I want to help change the paradigm for minorities and women.”

Family ties

The D.C.- and Chicago-based firm’s rich historical ties trace its roots back to McKissack’s great-great grandfather, Moses McKissack, a freed slave who worked as a brickmaker.

Her great-grandfather was a master carpenter, while her grandfather and great-uncle founded a construction company and became registered architects in 1922. Their most well-known project — and the largest federal contract ever awarded to a Black-owned company at that time — was building the Alabama airbase that housed the Tuskegee Airmen.

“When they passed the business to my father, he, of course, assumed he would have a son to work with him to carry on the family tradition,” Deryl McKissack said. “That turned out to be a little hard considering that he had three girls.”

Nonetheless, when she was about 6 years old, McKissack already was busy crafting architectural plans under her father’s supervision. By the time she turned 12, McKissack’s drawings were being used in client presentations.

With her interest in architecture and construction clearly fueled by getting hands-on experience at her father’s business, McKissack eventually headed off to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Howard University.

It was a full-circle moment for her: Her family’s business history also included work at 35 Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) over the years, and now she had decided to earn the degree that would propel her own business success at an HBCU.

Building her own legacy

After graduating from Howard University in 1983, McKissack initially worked at Turner Construction Co. and Dames & Moore. By the time she decided to take a leap of faith to launch her own firm, it was because “my love of the industry kept pushing me forward. I always thought that because of my name, there was something more for me to do.”

The self-described competitor quickly began to build her business on the same key principle her father used in building his: relationships.

“There’s always the need to build a trust relationship,” McKissack said. “They need to know that they can trust us to bring their project to life in the way they envisioned it. When clients trust you as a partner, they will come back to you with other projects because of that relationship.”

Of all that I’ve accomplished so far, this is what I want to be most remembered for: enhancing people’s lives and changing the paradigm for women and minorities,” — Deryl McKissack

While McKissack & McKissack has contributed significantly to some of the most iconic statues and museums in the United States, part of the company’s work extends to something Deryl McKissack believes is fundamental to achieving better equality for all: building safer, healthier and more connected schools.

That area of business proved fruitful for McKissack & McKissack over the years. In 2007, the firm was named the program manager for the DC Public Schools Modernization Program, where the company oversaw the modernization of 123 schools and associated facilities, including more than 12 million square feet of new construction and renovation projects.

McKissack & McKissack also was involved in the relocation and renovation of D.C.’s Dunbar High School, founded in 1870 as the first public high school for Black students. When it reopened in 2013, the school was named the “Greenest School in the World” by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“Education is the pathway to equity,” she wrote in a company blog that highlighted a 2021 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which found half of the nation’s school buildings were in such disgraceful disrepair that they would need major upgrades to simply qualify as good. “[Equity] begins with safe, healthy K-12 school buildings.”

Helping the next generation

Despite her success, McKissack still has had to deal with challenges not only as a woman in a male-dominated industry but also as a Black woman.

One of her favorite stories to tell happened during one of her first presentations that just happened to be to a room full of men. “After my presentation, one of the men in the room began by addressing me as ‘little lady,’ “ McKissack recalls with a smile. “When I first started out, there weren’t a lot of women in the industry. That’s changed a bit over the years, but minority firms are still treated differently sometimes. That’s why we need more Black talent in our industry.”

To address those needs and overcome the many challenges women and minorities face in the AEC industry, last October McKissack turned her attention to launching a new organization called AEC Unites — to foster intentional opportunities for Black talent and businesses across all facets of the architecture, engineering and construction sector.

The organization’s goals are four-fold:

  • To inspire, promote and ensure equity and inclusion in the AEC industry
  • To unite the AEC industry in a commitment to unlock the power of diversity, equity and inclusion within the Black community
  • To build Black-owned business capacity through intentional procurement strategies, partnering, mentoring and training
  • To attract, build and advance Black talent within the AEC industry

This new mission aligns with McKissack’s membership in the DC Build Back Better Infrastructure Task Force, where she uses her expertise to advise on priority projects to be funded through President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“Of all that I’ve accomplished so far, this is what I want to be most remembered for: enhancing people’s lives and changing the paradigm for women and minorities,” McKissack said.

Source: Deryl McKissack builds on the foundation of her family’s legacy in construction - Bizwomen (


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