Jumoke Akin-Taylor’s story begins with a twist of fate. Initially, she planned to attend Howard University’s School of Pharmacy. Classes didn’t start until September, and she had already completed her prerequisites in the fall, so she would need to wait a year to begin. However, Akin-Taylor was an international student, which meant waiting wasn’t an option. In a moment of quick thinking, she registered for classes alongside her cousin at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). Little did she know this seemingly small decision was the moment her trajectory changed.
The cousin was in the newly added civil and construction engineering technology program at UDC, a far cry from pharmacy. “And I loved it,” Akin-Taylor said. The rest, as they say, is history. Of course, construction and engineering were nothing new to Akin-Taylor’s family. In addition to her cousin, her father also had a background in the industry.
As an immigrant to the United States, Akin-Taylor reflected on how attending UDC, one of the nation’s 107 Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs), influenced the direction her career has taken. “I don’t know that I understood discrimination or racism until I got here [to the U.S.],” she said.
By attending an HBCU, Akin-Taylor was interacting daily with other students and faculty members who could help her contextualize racial discrimination from a first-hand perspective. These connections would prove invaluable as she embarked on her professional journey. Through her education at UDC, Akin-Taylor learned to see architecture as more than just a profession. It was a means of empowerment and a tool for positive change, the backbone of the distinctive lens through which she would navigate the AEC industry.
Journey to Design-Build
After UDC, she embarked on her career as a project manager, initially in the D.C. government and later in Fairfax County (VA). But she had always dreamt of moving to California and eventually seized an opportunity to work on the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Hospital make-ready project. She has been in the Golden State for 13 years, currently with San Francisco Public Works (SFPW), where she is a Project Manager handling the design and construction of capital projects.
At the start of her career, Akin-Taylor had only used CM/GC or design/bid/build –– until she worked on a project with former DBIA President Craig Unger. Akin-Taylor credits Unger and former DBIA Board member Jacob Williams for igniting her love of design-build when she began working with them. She noted how much their time and mentorship cemented her interest in successfully using design-build in her public works projects, particularly because she encountered resistance from those in the public works sector who “didn’t want to have anything to do with design-build” at the time.
Akin-Taylor was at one point working on a $240 million design-build project and meeting some pushback, so she turned to Williams for support. “He was so committed to my success, and I was determined that this project would be a design-build success story.”
In the end, that $240 million project was a success, and Akin-Taylor realized much of the resistance she had met resulted from Owners not using best practices in design-build projects and often not having the requisite information to ensure success. Akin-Taylor saw this deficit as an opportunity to employ her dogged determination to advance design-build delivery. “I’m a sucker for trying to make things work,” she said, “so I dug my heels in and got involved in DBIA,” including working with DBIA education, serving on several committees and returning year after year to judge DBIA award-winning projects.
As an awards juror for the past eight years, Akin-Taylor finds great joy in seeing the evolution of an award-winning project. “It’s incredible how the industry is responding to DBIA’s Best Practices because every year, the projects just raise the bar,” she said.
Akin-Taylor took what she’d learned by working with Williams and Unger as well as DBIA Fellow and design-build advocate Michael Meredith and paired it with the hands-on experience and industry service she’d gained to create a playbook for using design-build in public works projects. That playbook helped her keep a series of small design-build projects ahead of schedule and on budget, and their success led to Akin-Taylor being tasked with more projects with larger budgets. She said, “I was adamant about getting design-build right, and I did. I got it right.”
“I Am Here. I Am Part of This Team.”
Nevertheless, even Akin-Taylor’s growing portfolio of successful projects couldn’t overcome every obstacle in her career. Early on, she recognized she occupied an uncommon space in the landscape as a woman, a Black woman and a Black woman immigrant.
Akin-Taylor’s measured, confident voice carries the distinctive melody of Nigerian-accented English, which she explained could be a roadblock at the start of her career in the United States. Akin-Taylor said, “One way to shut me up was for someone to say, ‘Huh? What did you say?'” In the beginning, she addressed other people’s inability or unwillingness to give her the space to speak by simply not speaking at all; she would “just show up and do [her] part.” She skipped a lot of networking and kept her perspective to herself until she began encountering colleagues who recognized the strength of her diversity. “I began to meet allies,” she said, “who didn’t see me as a Black woman but as someone who brought a fresh, unique perspective to the team.”
None of this was by accident, of course, as Akin-Taylor had begun flipping the script. Rather than being quiet to avoid others’ discomfort, she started asserting her knowledge. While allyship certainly helped, it was Akin-Taylor standing firm and taking up the space she’d earned that turned barriers –– whether due to opposition or apathy –– into respect. She adopted the perspective that “I am here. I am part of this team. People want to hear what I have to say.”
And so she said it.
Akin-Taylor attributes finding her voice in part to maturity, but she also recognizes the journey may be differently challenging for others coming up in the industry today. With DBIA, Akin-Taylor sits on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, where she and committee members make recommendations on operational changes to set the stage for meaningful and thoughtful DEI practices.
She has used the same voice to help shape the public works sector, as well, by establishing a Black History Month Committee at SFPW. As the only Black female project manager in her department, she identified a need to educate and empower her colleagues about the achievements of Black architects, engineers and inventors. Over time, the initiative not only broadened awareness of Black contributions but also led to the celebration of other cultural heritages within the department. Akin-Taylor said the payoff has been an increased appreciation of uniqueness and a recognition of commonalities among industry professionals.
Empowering the Future
Akin-Taylor formed her professional identity with the help of mentors and peers –– and, of course, a great deal of talent –– and now she prioritizes being a mentor or supportive peer for others in the industry. She believes programs can be effective as early as high school, but a good mentor can be found at any point in one’s career. Akin-Taylor herself was well on her way to a successful career before seeking advice from Unger, Williams and Meredith in her early design-build work, but they came into her path at the right time to help her cement the start of her legacy. They used their foundation to help Akin-Taylor build hers, which she now shares with the next generation as well as established professionals looking to elevate their design-build game.
For young professionals, her advice is to pursue excellence for themselves, set personal goals and build their vision boards to guide their careers. “Build yourself and do it for excellence by your own standards,” she said. Akin-Taylor encourages students to carve out their space early. “Get involved in the industry; find your allies,” she advised, “I’m not just talking about mentors but peers. Build trust with them.”
In a field where diversity and representation are still evolving, Akin-Taylor’s story serves as an inspiration. Her education at an HBCU shaped not only her career but also her mission to create spaces that reflect the richness of diverse communities. It’s a reminder that the path to success in architecture, engineering and construction is not just about mastering the technical aspects but also about embracing one’s unique perspective and using it to effect positive change.
Read more interviews in our new series profiling DBIA membership: