I returned to work 7 years after staying home with my 2 wonderful children.

Design Collaborative surrounded me with remarkable architects and designers…. yet to my surprise, something was missing. I was the only individual of Black descent. So, I decided to research the industry at large and educate myself and my colleagues on what I learned.

In 2020, Architect Magazine reported that only 0.4% of licensed architects in the US are Black women. A 2022 article in Architectural Digest, reports only 2.3% of interior designers in the U.S. identify as Black or African American in a $17.5 billion industry. While growth in racial diversity in the A/E/C industry is slow, the number of Black-led design firms and minority-owned studios is noticeably increasing. One great example of a growing and thriving minority-owned firm is Moody Nolan. Based in Columbus, OH and founded in 1983, Moddy Nolan is the largest African-American-owned and operated architecture firm in the US. In 2021, it was the recipient of The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Architecture Firm Awards and was founded by architect Curt Moody and engineer Howard E. Nolan in 1983.

Let’s take a walk through history and take a look at several women who make strides for the African American community in the A/E/C industry.

A Walk Through History:

Norma Merrick Sklarek

Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first African American woman to pass her license exam to officially become an architect in New York and California. Sklarek is most recognized for designing the United States Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, in 1976 and the Terminal One station at the Los Angeles International Airport in 1984. After designing several buildings, she became among the first black women to own an architecture firm alongside her colleagues Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond from 1985-1989. She earned the nickname “The Rosa Parks of Architecture” from Author Anna M Lewis for her significant accomplishments as a black woman in a male-dominated field. She continued to be a voice for women who were likely to face discrimination in certain careers.

As important as it is to honor the trailblazers of the past – like the late great Norma Merrick Sklarek – it is equally important to learn the names of some designers and architects who are currently breaking these barriers.

Images 1 & 2: Pioneering Woman



Kimberly is an architect and real estate developer born and raised in Detroit. She is the president of the National Association of Minority Architects, the Director of Business Development for HOK’s Chicago Office, and a partner of the development firm Century Partners. In addition to the long list of titles I just listed, Dowdell is a lecturer at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Given her background, Kimberly holds a unique perspective on cities, architecture, and real estate development.

It is precisely through her lived experience and her family’s history that she was drawn to what she does today. Her grandparents, in 1947, were one of the first black families to integrate into their neighborhood on the east side of Detroit. When Dowdell was nine years old, the house she grew up in was demolished after Detroit’s government designated her neighborhood as disinvested. This event impacted Dowdell deeply, and she quickly, at the age of eleven, saw architecture as a solution. She wanted to prevent other families around the world from experiencing what had happened to her. As a renowned leader in strategic planning, design, project management, housing policy, and real estate development, it’s ultimately through a blend of academic and professional experiences that Dowdell learned what it takes to champion equity in the design process.

Images 1 & 2: Archinect News


Architect Allison Grace Williams has an international portfolio of large-scale civic, cultural, and research work in 40 years of practice as a design leader with SOM, Perkins+Will, and AECOM. Williams is best known for her inventive instincts and leadership that generated award-winning buildings bridging culture, technology, and the environment to convey the values and traditions of audience and place. Her work includes The August Wilson Center (Pittsburgh PA), The Health and Sciences Campus for Princess Abdulrahman University for Women, (Saudi Arabia), CREATE (in Singapore), and more. Williams established AGWms studio in 2017.

Images 1, 2 & 3: African American Design Nexus

These pioneers set the stage for what the industry of architecture can become when such talent is discovered, honed, embraced, and sought after – a talent that comes from individuals from all walks of life.

The DEI committee at Design Collaborative has initiated a celebration of Black History in our office. We have been featuring impactful individuals each week, including the powerful women highlighted in this article.

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