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“The road to success is under construction”

  • “On-site with Cheryl McKissack Daniel” yields gems for UMES students and community

    Thursday, March 11, 2021

    Like many parts of life over this past year, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's 2020 Women's History Month event was adjusted to be a virtual celebration of Black History Month and Women's History Month for 2021. On March 4th, the campus community met on UMES' Instagram platform for “On-site with Cheryl McKissack Daniel,” a live conversation with the President & CEO of McKissack & McKissack. 

    Cheryl McKissack Daniel, a Nashville, Tenn. native, earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from Howard University and represents the fifth generation of her family's century-old business (founded in 1905). The 45-minute conversation featuring the leader of “the oldest minority and woman-owned design and construction firm in the nation” was light-hearted, encouraging and filled with the love found in the community of historically Black colleges and universities. 

    Daniel shared some of her family history, starting with her enslaved Ashanti ancestor who was taught the trade of making bricks and later freed. “A twisted version of diversity, if you think about it,” she said. 

    Not initially interested in a career in architecture, Daniel shared how her “course was pretty much charted” by her parents saying, ”My father gave us trains. He never gave us dolls. He gave us drafting equipment. He knew what he was doing.”

    “On weekends, we would be in his office tracing documents and walking constructions sites, just learning the lay of the land at a very early age 10, 11, 12. By the time I was ready to go to college, I wanted to be an engineer, but my father wanted my twin sister and (me) to be architects.”

    Family Business

    (L to R) Tahja Cropper & Cheryl McKissack Daniel in conversation via Instagram.

    Her career goal was to work in New York City. She prepared for that before going into her family business by working at large firms that didn't bear her last name and provided an excellent training ground, which included Turner Construction. 

    “Going into my family business was my mom calling up my boss and telling my boss 'Cheryl is quitting today',” she said bursting with laughter. 

    “'She doesn't know it yet, but I'm going to let her know when I hang up with you. She needs to leave by Friday because she needs to be in Nashville by Saturday so she can start work with me on Monday.'”

    “I could not believe my mother did that, but she did,” she said. Looking back on it she describes this decision as “a little pushy” and “one of the best decisions I allowed my mother to make.” 

    “She taught me a lot. She is my #1 mentor,” she said about her mother who has a master's degree in psychology and was running the family business in the early 1980s.

    During this time, Daniel learned many lessons that she applies to business today including not judging a book by its cover related to a specific presentation experience early in her career. “I learned that I will speak to anyone at any time about what I'm thinking and the value proposition that I'm bringing to the table.”  

    “Nothing stops me from giving my elevator pitch to anyone. I don't care who they are,” she said.

    Daniel opened her New York firm in 1991 and later bought the family firm in 2000. McKissack & McKissack provides construction management, program management and consulting services for various project types throughout the East Coast and the United States. The firm's focus is in the infrastructure, transit, healthcare and education sectors.

    Achieving Success & Building Wealth

    Noting her commitment to HBCUs, she referenced an upcoming campaign from the New York Building Congress, an organization that focuses on providing “a unique forum to advance an industry-wide agenda focusing on economic and infrastructure investment, job creation and professional exchange. These goals require the dedicated involvement and cooperation of the contractors, architects, engineers, unions, real estate managers, developers and owners who comprise the building community.”

    “We're going to be coming to your university and other HBCUs to get Black and Brown people interested in our field. We're going to offer internships and we are going to try to get you to come to New York,” she said regarding diversity in the industry as her company is 50% minority. 

    The Chief Executive Officer had the following advice for the audience: 

    • “Building relationships are key. Never discount building relationships with people. Get your elevator pitch together.”
    • “I define my lane. I define who I am. It is so important that you do something that you have a real strong passion around.”
    • “The road to success is under construction. You have to avoid the potholes of I could, I would, and I should. You got to do. You will see mountains move just because you decide to act. Indecision is the worst place to be. It is paralysis by analysis.”
    • “Do not be afraid to fly. Do not be afraid to take risks. Dream outside your limitations.”


    Looking ahead, she said she hopes more women and people of color will enter the construction industry. “In 2019, the construction industry revenues were two trillion dollars. In the world, it was five trillion. In 2023, it's going to be $10 trillion dollars,” she said.  

    “This is an industry that is growing exponentially. I would say to any young person considering architecture, engineering, or construction that it can build wealth. It can free you so that you can create your own destiny.”

    Daniel encouraged entrepreneurship in the Black community citing a recent article she read, “One of the best ways to correct the injustice, the systematic racism that we have dealt with, and the Black-white wealth gap is through entrepreneurship,” she said. 

    “We have to start more businesses. We need more equity as individuals. There is equity out there for us. We create a very healthy ecosystem when we start our own businesses because we tend to hire Black consultants and more Black people. That creates a community that can change the world.”

    By Tahja Cropper

    Watch the full Instagram live conversation, “On-site with Cheryl McKissack Daniel”, here. UMES' undergraduate programs include construction management/technology and engineering (aerospace, computer, electrical, and mechanical).