Black Women Carving Out Niche in Construction Industry

Dorothy Rowley | 6/13/2012, 11:21 a.m.

There was a time when it was unheard of for a woman, let alone a black woman, to be allowed anywhere near a construction site. But now, with the influx of females assuming jobs traditionally dominated by men, those like Deryl McKissack are giving new meaning to their roles in the workforce - specifically women who show up donning a hard hat, a safety vest and steel-toed shoes rather than a Marc Jacobs suit and Louboutins.

McKissack is the owner and chief executive officer of the D.C.-based McKissack & McKissack, a woman/minority-owned business that specializes in architecture and interiors along with project and construction management. The firm currently has 150 employees in its four offices across the country.

"We need more engineers and architects in this country," said McKissack, who started out working for the District-based Turner Construction Company after graduating with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. "For women [in construction] it's not something they should fear [simply] because it's known as a man's business. As long as [we women] are good at what we do, and have confidence in ourselves, we can't just succeed but excel in this business."

Her grandfather, Moses McKissack III of Tennessee, launched the family's construction business 107 years ago. Eventually, her father William DeBerry McKissack, inherited the business and brought along his three daughters. While the girls - all of whom went on to excel in architecture and engineering - it was McKissack who had her sights set on grander visions of entrepreneurship. So in 1990, armed with $1,000, she jump-started her own venture in her hometown of Nashville, building it into the bustling company it is today with offices in D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

From Turner Construction, McKissack, went on to work at her alma mater, Howard University, where she managed the institution's construction and development projects. She said the construction arena is a lucrative field - one that she would definitely encourage young girls to consider entering. However, in a field where the number of black females is relatively low, they have to approach it prepared and fortified with a boatload of persistence and perseverance, McKissack said.

"I think that's key because if you don't push yourself, no one else [will]," she said. "They have to be definitely prepared and have passion about what they're doing. I tell them to enjoy their work because if they don't it's not worth doing."

But McKissack, whose professional accomplishments include the lead on the architectural design for the Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall as well as work on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest and the newly-constructed 11th Street Bridge near Southeast - is quick to admit it hasn't always been easy being accepted by men who devalue a woman's ability to work alongside them.

"A lot of it is not understanding who we are as women," said McKissack, who added that the [Martin Luther King Memorial] project was a "very rewarding" undertaking and milestone for her company. "So it's more of an apprehension," she said.