The gig: Deryl McKissack, 52, is president and chief executive of McKissack & McKissack, a construction management and design firm with offices in Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and Baltimore. The firm manages about $15 billion in construction projects. It has 160 employees. "We're managing the construction process, providing inspections, overseeing schedules and budgets," McKissack said. "With program management, you are managing more than just one project. You are managing an entire capital program for a client."
Slavery-era roots: McKissack and her twin sister, Cheryl McKissack Daniel, are part of the fifth generation of her family to be involved in design and construction. "Our roots go back to before the Civil War, when a slave named Moses McKissack learned the building trade from his overseer," she said. In 1905, his grandsons, brothers Moses III and Calvin, founded the first McKissack & McKissack in Nashville.
A demanding father: William DeBerry McKissack, son of Moses III, took over the company in 1968. By age 6, Deryl and Cheryl, along with older sister Andrea, were doing architectural drawings at the office for 25 cents an hour. "By the time we were 13, he was using our work," McKissack said. The girls got fed up with a quarter an hour. "My twin sister and I quit and went to work for McDonald's, but that didn't last." McKissack said. Did she get a raise? "Oh, no," she said. "We came back begging."
Engineering alphabet: McKissack attended Howard University in Washington, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering. She is a licensed PE, or professional engineer, and a registered PMP, or project management professional.
The big break: McKissack formed her own offshoot of the company in 1990, opening an office in Washington. "I wanted to push and pull my own little red wagon," she said. In 1996, a fire at the U.S. Treasury building caused water and smoke damage throughout the structure. The Treasury Department "wound up funneling about $10 million in business through our office."
Hit the pavement: After opening her Los Angeles office in 2008, she was traveling to Southern California every other week, so she bought a home. "I believe in hitting the pavement, being part of the fabric, knowing all of the political people, the charity people, everybody," she said. Her Los Angeles clients include the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Big jobs: The most memorable project was the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington. "We were the architects of record for that," McKissack said. "My staff had worked on the World War II Memorial next door. We were also the design builders for the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial upgrades, so we were a natural choice." The company is also the program manager for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in Washington in 2015.
Key influences: Her mother, Leatrice, now 83, took over the family business in 1983 after her husband suffered a stroke. "She always told us we could do anything if we worked at it," McKissack recalled. Another inspiration was Bettye Dixon, wife of the late Rep. Julian Dixon. "She was always the type of lady I wanted to be when I grew up. Very classy, very elegant, but also witty and smart and down to earth."
Personal: Sister Cheryl runs McKissack & McKissack in New York. Deryl McKissack has a 10-year-old daughter, Ahlyah McKissack Albritton. McKissack divides her time between Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington.
Advice: First, get a good education "in the sciences and math, especially, with a big emphasis on reading. My mother used to make me read Time magazine every night. We are losing every day against other countries because there are not enough of us going into science and engineering. Women and African Americans and other minorities really need to be in these fields, and they aren't."