By Derrel Jazz Johnson
As President and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, a design and construction firm, Cheryl McKissack Daniel has overseen over 600 projects since taking over the family’s original business as sole owner. Notable McKissack & McKissack projects involve some of New York and the country’s largest projects including the $4B LaGuardia Airport Central Terminal Building Redevelopment; the $500M+ Atlantic Yards LIRR Vanderbilt Yard Relocation; and the $888M Coney Island Hospital Campus Renovation. She also chairs the NY Building Foundation and is a member of the national board of the ACE mentor organization and the NY Building Congress Board of Directors.
This resume would be impressive for anyone in the industry, but when you learn that McKissack Daniel is a Black woman who has navigated the company to success while enduring systemic racism, sexism and more discrimination, she is truly one of the ‘Hidden Figures’ (a term coined by Chandra McQueen of Moona Media & Management) in the design and construction industry. The Harlem Times spoke exclusively with the HBCU graduate about past, present and future projects, her inspiration, what it means to carry on the family’s legacy of a fifth-generation business, giving back, her inspiration, and more.
As McKissack Daniel discusses her humble beginnings that led to her running the oldest minority and woman-owned design and construction firm in the nation, you might just believe that she was predestined to serve in this role.
“You can sort of say it was in my DNA,” she exclusively tells The Harlem Times. “When I was growing up, it was a different day. Parents had a lot of say and stake in your future. For Christmas and birthdays, my parents would always give my twin sister and T-Squares,” she said, adding that they were never given dolls. McKissack Daniel shares that her interest in the business came from Saturday visits to her father’s office at a young age and also interning at the family business.
McKissack Daniel, who purchased the firm from her mother in 2000, says it’s very humbling to serve as President and CEO of McKissack & McKissack.
“I feel blessed to have a legacy of five generations and to be standing on the shoulders of my forefathers who all overcame tremendous obstacles to keep our business going through some of the most difficult times of Black America,” she exudes with pride.”
While McKissack Daniel, who chairs the NY Building Foundation, is very confident in her role, she does feel the pressure that goes with running a fifth-generation business, likening her ancestors to members of a track and field relay team. “When you have the baton, you don’t want to drop it,” she exclaimed. “You want to make sure that you carry that baton to the best of your ability while the company is under your watch.”
The Howard University graduate, who serves as Project Executive on all of her firm’s high-profile projects, shared with The Harlem Times some of the current and future projects the company is working on.
“We’re on the largest project in the country and that is The New Terminal One at JFK International Airport, it’s at $9.5 billion,” she shared. “We are also the independent engineer for the MTA, which means we oversee their entire Capital Construction Program, which, of course, is the largest transportation system in the western hemisphere.” McKissack & McKissack, which has an office in the heart of Harlem on 125th street, is construction manager for the $888M Coney Island Hospital Campus Renovation for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation and was also responsible for the Harlem Hospital Center Modernization.
McKissack Daniel, who runs a New York State-certified Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE), explained that government programs that assist them are needed for the people of color and women that have been left out, shut out and left behind. Reflecting on the journey of her ancestors, she passionately discusses why she is committed to changing the narrative by continuing to build iconic structures brick by brick.
“It is pertinent now more than ever to make sure that businesses owned by minorities and women have a seat at the table and remain a viable part of not only New York City’s economic growth, but the entire country.”
Though I had a lengthy discussion with McKissack Daniel about Affirmation Tower, a proposed site on the 1.2-acre lot next to the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul rescinded the Request for Proposal. The team, which includes Don Peebles, chairman and CEO of The Peebles Corporation, Craig Livingston, managing partner of Exact Capital, and McKissack Daniel, released the following statement.
“We view the delay of the disposition of site K as temporary and the Affirmation tower team remains fully committed to addressing the new goals of the governor and community. We remain undeterred in our efforts to transform New York City’s commercial real estate industry by knocking down the barriers and systematic industry-wide decimation that block women and minorities from meaningful access to New York City real estate. We are more determined than ever to provide minority and women-owned businesses with the unprecedented $1 billion in contracts that this project creates. Some opponents are vested in maintaining the status quo and are rooting against us and this transformational change that is long overdue, but change cannot wait and will prevail. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘a right delayed is a right denied.’ The overwhelming broad-based support Affirmation Tower has received from the community, the city, the state, the country, and the world further demonstrates that the time for Affirmation Tower, and what it stands for, is right now.”
Finally, when it comes to who inspires and mentors McKissack Daniel, she doesn’t have to look too far to see a visionary. In 1983, Cheryl’s mother, Leatrice McKissack took on the challenge of becoming CEO of the family business after her husband suffered a stroke, without any formal background in the business.
“My mother has been my mentor for a very long time,” she pridefully exclaimed. “She taught me to role early on with respect to business development, with respect to being confident and what I bring to the table, not trying to emulate anyone else.”
McKissack Daniel also says she is inspired by the future and the possibilities it holds, citing Affirmation Tower and creating opportunities for those in the community.
She is already creating opportunities for others with her latest venture, Legacy Engineers, a mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection (MEP/FP) consulting engineering firm specializing in innovative solutions for the building environment. The objective is when the company becomes profitable and stable, ownership will revert to the owners and principals, as her contribution to help encourage/support small business enterprise and to promote generational wealth.
On a personal note, McKissack Daniel was a breath of fresh air and so humble, open and honest to talk to. As a veteran of the industry, I have encountered people with a quarter of her accomplishments with much bigger egos. It is not hard to see why she is an industry and community pillar. It is no wonder that the entertainment trades recently announced that under an overall deal with NAACP-CBS, a drama for Paramount+ is being developed inspired by this construction mogul. To learn more about Cheryl McKissack Daniel and McKissack & McKissack, visit https://mckissack.com/.