How America’s largest African American-owned firm is planning for the future
In January 2020, Jonathan Moody, AIA, officially became CEO of Moody Nolan. They were big shoes to fill. His father, Curtis Moody, FAIA, was awarded the Whitney M. Young Jr. award in 1992 and AIA Ohio’s highest honor, the Gold Medal, in 2007 -- among other honors. Today, Moody Nolan is the largest African American-owned and managed design firm in the United States.
But Jonathan wasn’t worried. He and his father had been planning this move for decades, determined to keep the firm within the family and alter an architecture-wide belief that leadership changes mean trouble.
“Looking around the industry, we were very aware that there weren’t many examples within families, especially within African American families, of transitions occurring,” Curtis said. But he was ready to step down, and Jonathan was ready to step up. And the younger Moody is now spreading that forward-facing mindset throughout his firm.
“I’ve challenged all our firm leaders, in every studio and office, to identify who will be the next ‘you’ in 20 years,” Jonathan said.
The new CEO admits that, roughly a decade ago, he started to realize that his father might directly pass the torch down to him. But beyond just keeping the legacy inhouse, Curtis recognized the need for a leader who understood the challenges a minority-owned firm can face.
“As much as we don’t like this to be the case, it’s the reality; we go after projects and the client says, ‘We actually had issues with the last minority-owned firm we dealt with.’ Well, they’re a whole different firm,” he said. “You would not hear, ‘The last white-owned firm we dealt with gave us some problems.’”
The problems of perception are common to not only Curtis and Jonathan but minority-owned firms everywhere. Though Moody Nolan now has 12 offices and more than 200 employees, that wasn’t always the case. For years, they – and firms like them – were easily dismissed by clients for not fitting arbitrary, predetermined standards.
“They assume that, if you have a smaller staff, you can’t handle big projects,” Curtis said. “Or that your small staff is not very experienced and therefore you can’t measure up. On top of that, they believe you’re sheltered under some sort of MBE (minority business enterprise) program and so you don’t need to pursue certain projects. So much of that is untrue, especially when it comes to size and talent.”
To tackle this issue head-on, Moody Nolan has emphasized project partnerships based on specific reasons like location or skill gaps. Though the assumption is often that the minority-owned firm takes on a percentage of the work while a more mainstream firm takes the lead, Curtis and Jonathan recognize the need to set a standard and stress their stature and expertise as well as their background.
“We are skilled and very good at being a partner,” Curtis said, “and by the way, in most markets, we also meet the minority criteria that might be driving a project.”
It’s a delicate balance: embracing being a minority-owned firm while also letting your work and accomplishments speak for themselves. The Moodys seem very aware of both sides of this coin; they want to be architects and businesspeople first and foremost but also recognize that, as African Americans who run a large firm, they’re a rarity.
Jonathan saw this firsthand at his initial meeting of AIA’s Large Firm Round Table (LFRT), which happened to be attended by the heads of architecture schools from the top historically black colleges and universities. “Robert Easter, the chair of the architecture school at Hampton University, did something on purpose. He asked every member of the LFRT who represents a minority-owned firm to stand up. And I was the only one standing.”
He’s not fully pessimistic, however; he senses a real desire for change, largely fueled by younger architects and clients with more progressive ideas about how to do business. He also knows that there’s currently a lot of work to do and not enough architects to do it, but more than anything he’d like to see all this conversation turn into action.
“Whitney Young came to the AIA convention in 1968 and criticized the diversity of our profession,” he said, “and now it’s 2020 and we’re in essentially the same spot.”
For now, what the Moodys can control is their own firm, and they’re committed to making it an even more diverse place to work. They want to tackle new project types that take them out of their comfort zone; they want to take the lead on ambitious endeavors and become better known on the national scene. And they want to reinforce that, whether it’s Curtis or Jonathan at the helm, Moody Nolan can be a leader in the architectural community in every sense of the word.
“There can be firms like ours that stand the test of time,” Curtis said, “that continue on and thrive and don’t just disappear.”
Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with a focus on architecture and design.