It’s been said, if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. And Cheryl McKissack Daniel, President & CEO of McKissack and McKissack happens to know that statement holds true. The head of the nation’s oldest minority/women-owned professional design and construction firm in the United States has been navigating the concrete jungle with a level of prudent stealth few firms her size can, securing major contracts in a city known for being insanely hard to crack.
While McKissack Construction is more than a century old, its successful dealings in the Big Apple are the work of its current proprietor. “I have been at this since 1990,” McKissack tells EBONY by phone last week. “It takes a while to build a reputation, especially in New York. The city does not take prisoners.” After 31 years, McKissack’s portfolio of work is as diverse as the metropolis itself, having worked in health care, K through 12 Higher Ed, sports. “You name it, we've done it,” McKissack quips. Indeed, the work speaks for itself.
Currently, the firm serves as the program manager for Terminal One at JFK. In this role, they oversee the design and construction of a $6 billion new terminal. “It is the largest project in the Western Hemisphere, the largest airport in America being built, and it has the largest minority woman-owned business program associated with it,” McKissack adds. Prior to this monumental undertaking, the company also worked on the Coney Island Hospital Redevelopment, Harlem Hospital Center’s Modernization, the Fulton Fish Market, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and projects with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the largest transportation system in the Western Hemisphere. For that venture, McKissack oversaw the Second Avenue Subway Extension and reworking the rail system for Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center.
“The project overall was about 300 million. And it had a short duration,” McKissack recalls. “And if you can imagine, they had certain dates that they had to open up the arena for Jay Z to kick off the first show. So we had to make those deadlines. It was a pressure cooker, let's put it like that."
Meeting stringent expectations is nothing new for the HBCU grad who describes her matriculation at Howard University as a “baptism by fire.” While the streets of NYC aren’t for the faint of heart, the boss businesswoman says it uniquely prepared her for the leadership role she holds today. In addition to giving her an educational foundation, McKissack says it solidified who she was as a Black woman. “It made me proud to be Black, to go to a Black institution, and to be in good company with the Black alumni who are icons.”
These days, McKissack is an icon in her own right to the men and women who she now mentors through Legacy Engineers, a mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection design firm she created. Along with her partner, John Wright, they teach professionals in these spaces how to be owners. It’s a fitting endeavor at this point in McKissack’s career. As she trains others to run a business much like her own, she’s also keeping an eye out for the person who will succeed her at her own firm. “I feel humbled that God saw me fit to be the next door of this business,” McKissack says of her years at the helm. "I want to make sure that I leave it better than I received it. So I've been working on that.”
In the meanwhile, McKissack is focused on doing a good job and continuing to make power moves in the city she worked so hard to conquer. She’s gotten past the fear of failure. And contends that it’s now time to ensure her family’s legacy remains intact. “New York is not an easy place. It's filled with setbacks and issues and problems,” McKissack laments. "But my family has gotten through slavery, Jim Crow, and all the other setbacks of this world. As my mother would say, it's taken us more than 100 years to become an overnight success.”