Three Queens Series: Deryl McKissack Wonder-Child of Design and Construction

In a continuation of our Three Queens Series, we spoke with Deryl McKissack, the president and CEO of McKissack McKissack. Similarly to her sister, Cheryl McKissack, Deryl McKissack spearheads nationally acclaimed construction and architectural projects, such as the George Washington Monument or the George H.W. Bush Library. And, it makes sense that she has become such an influential figure in the construction world, as she has been involved in her family’s 114 year old firm McKissack & McKissack from a young age.

Speaking with Deryl, she told us “I grew up knowing my father’s business in design and construction, and alongside my sister, I worked in the office starting at six years old.” By the time she was thirteen, her father had already started using their drawings, and her mother kept up the work in boosting her confidence. Together with her sister, Deryl went to job sites and worked there “all the way through high school”.

And, upon entering adulthood, Deryl, along with her sister made the choice to attend Howard university. Speaking on the subject, she told us that this experience was “very important, because my sister and I had gone to the same schools from k-12, where there were only three black people in our class.” She doesn’t regret her decision one bit. She described it as a “beautiful experience …It was so much fun, going back to our culture, understanding our culture, seeing different types of diversity in our culture”.

Years after her graduation, she founded McKissack McKissack in Washington DC. Over the past 30 years of the company’s existence, Deryl oversaw several significant projects, such as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial upgrades, the presidential libraries and the Dance Theater of Harlem. Looking at her present projects, she believes “they are really here to enhance people’s lives and make the world a better place…some of our projects have changed cities, and we have one of the largest K-12 practices in urban areas in the countries.”

Her work in the K-12 space has lived up to this mission. In one of her first interactions with school buildings, she “had to go to the bathroom and it was in such disarray, the toilets were off the wall, sicks were missing, towels were missing, the mirrors were dim”. “I was thinking how can we expect our kids to grow up, working everyday in an environment like this”. So, she changed McKissack & McKissack mission statement to enhance “people’s lives”, starting with a revitalization program of the schools via renovation and building over the past 12 years.

But, along with her success, she has to deal with many criticisms for her position as a woman of color. “Through my early years, I experience more discrimination for being a woman and for being a minority firm, but in recent years, there are more women in the industry”. “Yet, minority firms are still treated differently, as if they are not good enough.” Most of this discriminition is implicit, through microaggressions, where even after clear showings of success, contractors still ask “can you really do this”. Deryl found this “unfortunate, we cannot afford to fail; if we fail once, it’s going to hurt firms coming behind us. Large firms fail all the time and they get the job again and again.”

Of course, her success has gone far beyond construction, as Deryl is a member of the philanthropic world. She is on the board of living classrooms, which “works with kids to help them build their interest in STEM through boats”. She told us “the interest of sailboats make these kids ask alot of questions; it has grown much more and it is a great venue into STEM. Deryl had partnered with the Perez Art Museum in Miami, creating community events to get the community interested in art. But, as the pandemic came along she shifted her focus to food banks, working with multiple organizations to bring to the people who needed it. 

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