For the premiere of ESSENCE Best & Black Owned, Work & Money Editor Marquita K. Harris and her team learn about the ups, downs, and in-betweens of running a business.

It’s safe to say that most young girls don’t spend their weekends walking through construction sites in a hard hat, but Cheryl McKissack Daniel did. In 1905 her grandfather founded McKissack & McKissack Architects & Engineers, which provided the blueprint for her career.

The outfit is one of the oldest minority-owned professional design and construction firms in the United States, and when Daniel’s mom took the helm after her husband’s sudden illness, it became a woman-run construction company too.

In time Daniel would step up to head the family business herself, transforming it into McKissack & McKissack. In an industry in which there are still too few women and people of color, the president and CEO shares how she won multibillion-dollar contracts and made her mark.

Essence: Tell us about your path in the construction world.

Cheryl McKissack Daniel: When I was 12, my twin sister and I started going to work on Saturdays with our father, who was an architect and ran the family business. We would trace documents and walk construction sites. When it came time to go to college, my father told us, “You can go anywhere you want in the world, but I’m only paying for you to go to Howard University to study architecture.” We ended up at Howard, but I didn’t want to be an architect. I majored in engineering and went on to get a master’s degree in civil engineering. My first job was as a civil engineer designing silos for missiles. 

Essence: Why did you decide to leave that industry for the family business?

Daniel: When I was in my early twenties, my father had a massive stroke, and my mom had to assume control. She called my boss and told him, “My daughter’s quitting today.” And I did, flying home to Nashville from New York City every week to help her. I’d fly back to New York on weekends, but that schedule was taxing on my marriage. So I decided to start the McKissack Group, which was initially separate from the family business but still in the area of construction management. We oversaw plans from design to execution. My company was beginning to get small roles on very large assignments, with our contracts totaling $90 million. Eventually my mom retired and I ended up taking over the original business, shutting down our offices in Alabama and Tennessee and running the whole operation from New York City. 

Image Courtesy of McKissack & McKissack

Essence: How do you navigate being one of the few women
of color in your field?

Daniel: I was insulted in my own office recently. A man came in who didn’t believe we could handle big tasks. We were doing a joint venture with another construction firm on a new hospital for more than $700 million, and we were responsible for 40 percent of that. The man said to me, “All these joint ventures aren’t real. I’m sure the other company is doing all the work.” He couldn’t believe that minority- and women-owned businesses really do work in construction. And yet he was proposing to collaborate on a $25 million project. I turned him down, because I knew it would never be a real partnership.

Essence: You’ve been part of some major deals, like the recent $8 billion JFK Airport Terminal 1 project, on which your company is the project manager. What’s your secret to securing a contract?

Daniel: Construction is really a sales job first. Snagging contracts and bids is very much relationship-driven. People do business with people they know. I learned that I had to forge relationships with the right people to gain business. People know us, they know what we’re capable of doing and they know we have a track record. That’s how we nabbed the contract with New York City’s MTA Capital Program to provide audits on any construction project that’s more than $100 million.  

Essence: What’s a typical day like for you?

Daniel: I have a lot of breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings. When I’m in the office, I meet with senior staff and put out fires. I also sign every check. I learned that the hard way. For a time I was hands-off, and someone else on my team was determining what got paid and what didn’t. That’s not always a good idea. If you have your own company, always keep your eye on the finances. Trust but verify—that’s how I run things. 

Essence: Any advice for women looking to move up in their careers or strike out on their own?

Daniel: You need to define yourself. Don’t let other people define you. If we had let them do that, we would not be where we are today. When you’re moving up the ladder, whether you’re in a corporation or in your own business, a lot will come your way that can pull you off course. For example, we started out bidding on numerous projects and won several jobs. I could have stayed focused on our core services but instead I said, “No, we can handle it. We can get a bunch of bids.” Many of those jobs turned out great, but we had one that could have taken down the entire company. As a result, we went back to [the services we did best], and now we are thriving. Before, we were making $100 million a year but would end up with a loss of, say, $2 million. Now we’re doing
a little over $50 million in business, but we’re earning a profit of $3 million a year. The lesson I took from all that is that you have to stay centered on who you are and play to your strengths. 

This Q&A originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of ESSENCE magazine.