Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, On Her Career of Firsts

AIA’s first Black woman president-elect envisions new possibilities for the profession.

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, On Her Career of Firsts
When Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, is sworn in as AIA’s 100th president in 2024, she will be the first Black woman to ever hold the office. Raised in Detroit and currently based in Chicago, Dowdell was the 295th living Black woman to become a licensed architect in the United States in 2013. Currently a marketing principal at global design firm HOK, she was president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) from 2019 to 2020. We talked with Dowdell about her time leading NOMA and what it’s like to be a trailblazer in the field of architecture.


I firmly believe that leadership is a practice similar to how architecture is a practice or law is a practice or medicine is a practice. I don’t believe in perfection, but practice helps one to get closer to the goal of excellence.

NOMA has given me a lot of practice. I was national president for two years, but it’s actually a six-year term. I was president-elect for two years, then I had two years in the driver’s seat as president, and I’m currently the immediate past president until the end of this year. It’s a lot of time on the executive committee and helping to make key decisions for the organization.

One of my biggest takeaways from NOMA was learning more about my own resilience as a leader. I certainly didn’t know that I was going to be the sitting president when a global pandemic struck. I had to take everything in stride. One of the most important things I did was send a weekly note to our members during the uncertain times of the pandemic. After sending my last note several months into [the pandemic], I got so many messages back from people saying how those notes really helped them stay connected and gave them a level of comfort [knowing] that someone was awake at the wheel.

My experience leading NOMA through the early stages of COVID-19’s sweeping impact around the globe taught me how important it is to hear from leadership. Whatever that means in 2024, whether we’re navigating an economic downturn or something else completely unexpected, I intend to be communicative about how the AIA can be supportive of all our members, including those at different size firms, in different regions, and at different stages of their careers.

It’s so meaningful to be the first Black woman to be AIA’s president because it really seems to resonate with people, and not just people who fit my specific demographic. At the AIA Conference on Architecture in June, some people were a little misty-eyed and that made me misty-eyed. It was an “I’m not crying, you’re crying” situation. It clearly means something to people.

The notion of being a trailblazer harks back to my campaign slogan, which was “Envision new possibilities.” People who couldn’t see themselves as an AIA president now can, and equally as important, people who couldn’t see someone who looks like me in that role can now see that—even if they don’t look like me.