The roots of Deryl McKissack’s architecture, engineering, and construction management firm predate the Civil War. Today, she is a leading voice combating bias in her industry.
McKissack & McKissack is a 2020 Inc. Best in Business honoree. This year, Inc. launched the Best in Business Awards, featuring Company of the Year, to recognize companies that have had a superlative impact on their industries, their communities, the environment, and society as a whole.
The incidents started early this summer. Nooses hanging on job sites where Black workers would find them. Racist graffiti scrawled on portable toilets. Notes of lynching threats.
Racism has always existed in the construction industry. But as the nation grappled with outrage and protests in the wake of the police killings of Black Americans including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier this year, racist incidents in the White-dominated industry have come under more scrutiny than ever before.
Deryl McKissack wasn’t exactly surprised when she heard about them. As a 59-year-old Black woman and the founder and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based architecture, engineering, and construction management firm McKissack & McKissack, she’s seen racism and sexism firsthand. There was the time she worked for a boss who displayed a large Confederate flag behind his desk. Or when the guys she was tasked with overseeing as assistant superintendent refused to acknowledge her. “Where’s the boss?” they said. “You’re looking at her,” Deryl shot back. The hardest moments, however, may be the subtler ones, like when she knows her firm is the best one bidding for a job. “But the [client] doesn’t want to put us in the lead, or they don’t want to look at us as a real firm … that can do their job,” she says.
Her company’s track record alone ought to dispel any skepticism: McKissack & McKissack, which now has offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, and Baltimore, manages over $15 billion in projects nationwide. The firm’s most notable work includes coordinating the design and construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall; leading the design and building of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial; rehabilitating the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials; and overseeing the 1996 fire recovery effort at the U.S. Treasury Building and later renovating that entire 500,000-square-foot landmark building. The company has also led the ongoing effort to modernize Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport since 2005–one of the city’s largest construction projects to date.
Deryl has spent the past 30 years defying enormous odds in the industry. And as she has emerged as a leading voice for change, she’s also built a firm that is playing a crucial role in opening doors for other minority- and woman-owned construction companies–a key reason why it landed on Inc.‘sinaugural Best in Business list, a recognition program celebrating companies with outsize impact on society or their industry.
Blood Lines and Big Breaks
Deryl, a civil engineer by training, boasts a classically scrappy startup tale: In 1990, armed with $1,000 in savings, a list of 300 prospects, and an old Xerox machine that could only copy 80-page requests for proposal one sheet at a time, she launched her firm. But to really understand her story, you need to go back to the 18th century.
The McKissack family traces its roots back to a young Ghanaian man who was taken from his home in 1790, brought to the U.S., and enslaved to William McKissack, a prominent contractor in North Carolina. William gave him the name Moses McKissack and used him as a builder. Moses passed the trade down through the generations. His grandsons, Moses III and brother Calvin, eventually became the first Black licensed architects in the southeastern U.S., starting the first McKissack firm in Nashville in 1905, according to North Carolina Architects & Builders biographical dictionary. In 1968, William DeBerry, the youngest son of Moses III, became head of the company, encouraging his three daughters, Andrea, Cheryl, and Deryl, to learn about the industry. William’s wife, Leatrice, took over as CEO in 1975 when he retired, winning the design contract for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, located at the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Fifteen years later, Deryl became the fifth generation to continue the family’s building tradition with the launch of her own firm McKissack & McKissack in Washington, D.C. Within six years, she landed the company a crucial, high-profile contract through a mix of sheer tenacity and happenstance.
The way she tells it, at an event she met then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who introduced her to his head of procurement, Wesley Hawley. For two years, she stopped by Hawley’s office every other Friday to see if he had any work for her. Finally, she recalls, Hawley told his team to give Deryl work just so she would stop coming in. It was a small job managing the electrical distribution unit that backed up the Treasury’s electrical system, but Deryl was elated. The night she signed the deal, her phone rang at 10 p.m. and the voice on the other end urgently asked to speak to Mr. McKissack. “He’s dead,” she said and began to laugh. “I had had a couple of glasses of wine to celebrate my new little contract at the Treasury.”
The Secret Service agent on the line was unamused. “Lady, the Treasury Department is on fire,” she remembers him saying. “We need Deryl McKissack to get down here right away.” So she went. In the process of redoing the roof of the U.S. Treasury Building, contractors hired by the General Services Administration had accidentally set it on fire. Rubin asked his team if anybody else had an open construction contract with the Treasury. Hawley reported that Deryl McKissack did. “Well then she’s the one who’s going to do [my building],” said Rubin, she recalls. What began as a cleanup job turned into a 12-year project to completely renovate the building. Deryl says she had to present her plan to Rubin in a 10-minute meeting as the Secretary was immersed in the Asian financial crisis, a series of currency devaluations that began in the summer of 1997 and spread throughout much of Asia. He agreed, insisting that McKissack & McKissack maintain control of the entire project. “So that was our big break,” she says.
Bringing Up the Next Generation
Now running a national firm that does more than $30 million in annual revenue and works on some of the country’s most important landmarks, Deryl is acutely aware of both what she has achieved–and how elusive that success is for so many of her peers.
“It’s really key that a company like [this] exists, because if we’re going to move the needle forward in combating racism, there has to be companies with the capacity to do the work, or to even be in the running with the other majority companies,” she says. The industry is dominated by large firms led by White men.
Over the years, McKissack & McKissack has partnered with Turner Construction, which is the second largest domestic contractor in the U.S. with $15 billion in annual revenue and a 110,000-person workforce. (The American company is now a subsidiary of the German company Hochtief.) Turner CEO Peter Davoren says he remembers working with McKissack & McKissack on the MLK Memorial and walked away impressed by Deryl’s leadership and integrity.
“What’s wonderful about Deryl and her team is that they look in the rearview mirror. They can now go develop companies as they were developed in the past. The cycle continues,” says Davoren, nodding to the company’s mission to help other minority-owned companies break into the industry.
As a construction project management firm, McKissack & McKissack oversees the entirety of a project, from design to construction, all of which involves multiple subcontractors. The company makes a point of not only bringing in local minority- and women-owned firms and giving them their first big break, but also bringing them to the next major project on its docket, so they can gain momentum and continue to grow. “I told one of my clients, ‘Every month, this big firm gets a check from you. You can do the same thing for a minority company,'” Deryl says.
This year, she also directly called out the architecture, engineering, and construction industry for not doing enough to combat systemic racism. In September, Deryl asked her peers to adopt a seven-step plan, which includes actions like enforcing strict procurement policies to always include minority firms, diversifying teams and developing strategies to retain minority talent, and sharing the economic fruits of a job by using local small businesses for goods and services. “Every one of those points is viable,” says Davoren of Turner, which has adopted a zero-tolerance policy regarding racist acts and shut down job sites in response to incidents that occurred on its projects earlier this year.
Deryl says that while her company has not had to deal with nooses found on job sites, it has dealt with what she refers to as “invisible nooses”–the kind of infuriating instances where her staff is treated differently than those of White-led firms or simply ignored when it comes to decision making.
Remarkably, Deryl reflects on those moments now with a kind of defiant optimism and strength. “The things that irritate me or put me on the offensive, they stop you from growing and being creative. They can even make you paralyzed,” she says. So she’s long taken a different tack: “[We] show up and thrive.”