Tapping Top Talent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Perkins Eastman is making a concerted effort—on multiple channels—to support and promote emerging Black professionals.

Fikir Kebede, a new designer in Perkins Eastman’s DC studio, started her job last summer after graduating from the University of the District of Columbia, one of seven historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with accredited architecture programs. Several months later, senior Rachel Drakeford at Florida A&M, another of those seven HBCUs, successfully altered her senior design project—earning an A—following a trip to France in October on a Perkins Eastman-funded scholarship. The hope throughout Perkins Eastman is that these promising young women represent the beginning of a growing relationship with HBCUs.

Tapping Top Talent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Source: Perkins Eastman report

Kebede was the firm’s first hire as a result of our participation in the HBCU Professional Development Program through the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). The program was formed in 2020 to connect students with the nation’s top firms. “Architectural programs at HBCUs serve as catalysts for enhancing BIPOC students’ knowledge, skills, and expertise for entry into professional practice. However, HBCUs are significantly underrepresented and underutilized as resources for recruiting and retaining talent by design firms,” according to NOMA.

Tapping Top Talent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities 1

Black architecture-school graduates make up the smallest percentage of almost every other ethnicity in the United States. Source: National Architectural Accrediting Board, 2021 Annual Report on Architecture Education

Identifying talent at these schools is especially important because while they make up just five percent of all accredited architecture schools, they graduate a third of all Black architecture students, according to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

Tapping Top Talent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities 2

Source: Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture

“This [NOMA program] has opened up a whole new world for us,” says Perkins Eastman Principal Fawzia Ahmedali in DC, who hired Kebede. “Before this, we didn’t know where to go—there wasn’t an easily accessible pipeline,” she explains, noting that the NOMA program offers firms a type of one-stop-shopping experience to meet and mentor these students. After participating in professional-development sessions and career fairs with HBCU students for about three years, Ahmedali has been most impressed with the fact that nearly all the students in the UDC program in particular work while they’re in school, “so they’re getting a lot of practical training that other students don’t have.”

The New Hire

For her part, Kebede’s experience working for a small architecture practice while she was at UDC informed her decision to choose Perkins Eastman—over many other firms that were pursuing her. A small firm can offer an emerging professional many different roles and responsibilities, but not a huge array of projects, she says. With an eye toward graduate school, Kebede says she wanted to gain experience with more varied work. Currently, she’s on the Workplace team but is also interested in Residential. But even better, she says, is the diversity, friendliness, and outside social opportunities the job has offered. Kebede, a native of Ethiopia, counts team members from Japan, Pakistan, Trinidad, India, and China. “Everyone has a story. Everyone has an experience. Everyone has something to share. It impacts how you work. It makes coming into the office a lot more exciting,” she says.

Perkins Eastman architectural designer Fikir Kebede

Fikir Kebede

Beyond the office, Kebede’s joined various groups such as the studio’s culture club, the Black Leadership Network, and its volleyball team. She and some colleagues also attend occasional events and activities like spin classes sponsored by product representatives. All of this, combined with the professional experience and the firm’s mentoring culture, has her thinking twice about graduate school. “The experience I’ve gained working in the office is better than the experience I would have in grad school,” she says. “I feel like everyone I’ve worked with has been a mentor. Every time I have a question or need feedback, they’re always more than happy to reach out and explain.” And because Perkins Eastman has studios in so many locations, she says she values the opportunity to work with professionals in other regions like the west coast, where she’s come to know principals such as Costa Mesa’s Betsey Olenick Dougherty through the NOMA program.

Separately from NOMA, Perkins Eastman Associate Keith Jones in Charlotte, NC, reached out to Florida A&M last year to explore how the firm could support its students there. Though he didn’t attend the university, he has known and worked with some of its graduates. Several years ago, while attending his alma mater Virginia Tech’s yearlong program with the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, he noticed that students attending from FAMU presented line drawings and models within the first four weeks that were more advanced than anyone else, as they included both MEP and structural systems within the framework. “I was completely blown away,” he says. And more recently at a college career fair, the FAMU students he met were the only American undergrads with a working knowledge of the Revit software program. The goal at FAMU and the other HBCUs, he says, “is that there should be no excuse for why you shouldn’t be hired after graduation,” which is why they tend to be solidly grounded in the technical skills necessary for practice. “I told [Charlotte Managing Principals Bruce Moore and Julie Moller], ‘let’s try to make a relationship with this school.’”

The Studies Abroad

With their blessing and that of Co-CEO and Executive Director Shawn Basler, Jones contacted Andrew Chin, the interim dean at FAMU’s School of Architecture and Engineering Technology (SAET) last year, and the first result has been funding a $2,400 scholarship for one of its students to participate in a 10-day study-abroad program in France. (Jones hopes to expand the firm’s presence by embedding professionals into its programs like other large firms are already doing, or sponsoring students to spend time in its studios during future program trips to Chicago and New York.)

With the study-abroad money, Rachel Drakeford, a student from Atlanta, joined about a dozen of her classmates in October on a trip that included stops in Paris, Versailles, Nantes, and the Normandy coast.

Florida A&M senior Rachel Drakeford, standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe on her study-abroad trip to France

Florida A&M senior Rachel Drakeford stands in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris while on her study-abroad trip to France in October, 2022. Photo Courtesy Olivier Chamel

“We couldn’t do this program if the cost wasn’t sponsored,” Architecture Program Director Olivier Chamel says, noting that each student was traveling on a corporate-sponsored scholarship. The value of traveling and seeing buildings, monuments, cityscapes, and country sides that are different from your own can’t be overstated, Chamel adds. “You can explain it, you can tell them, you can show them pictures, but they’d still have no clue. In person, it puts everything into perspective.”

Drakeford had begun work on her senior project when she left for France—the assignment was to design a retrofit for a train station adjacent to a historic hotel. Having grown up in car-centric Atlanta, however, she had never been to a train station. But then she found herself on France’s high-speed rail from Paris to Nantes, arriving into the latter’s newly renovated, extraordinarily modern station. “That allowed me to see how an actual train station works, how it’s programmed within a space,” she says. Her original idea was to have her structure extend from the hotel and stop at the tracks, but after seeing Nantes’ new glass-and-steel mezzanine spanning its tracks from the north- to the south-bound lines, she changed course. “It made my project come out much better than I expected it to.”

The trip also gave her a better appreciation for urban planning, which she’s become interested in since attending a lecture on design justice and how the built environment can affect people for both the good and the bad. European cities like Paris and Nantes, Drakeford says, are walkable and comfortably human scaled. And with many monumental structures such as the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, “there’s always something to look at. There’s always history behind a structure.” She hopes to go to graduate school and study evidence-based design, and how architecture and planning can affect behavior and culture. “I’m big on mental health and a person’s experience in life. Whatever I design, I want to make sure it has a positive impact on the people around it.”

Drakeford went on to intern in Perkins Eastman’s Dallas studio during the summer of 2023.