Lessons learned as an African-American owned business

Moody Nolan set up shop in 1982 as one of a few minority-owned architectural firms in the United States. The company started out with loads of confidence in our abilities and a drive to succeed, just as all start-ups do.

Of course, it takes more than confidence to succeed, or every business would. It takes technical skill, the ability to provide a service in ways others can’t, business acumen and an ability to get along with people.

For Moody Nolan, it also required the ability to overcome preconceived notions about what an architectural firm looked like. Consider that, in 1982, the company was a small two-person African-American owned architectural firm; today, we’re the largest. So, the lessons learned as we grew sometimes had to do with race.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it would be shortsighted to focus on those lessons alone. In fact, most of the important lessons I learned are lessons for any time and for anybody who dreams of building a successful business.


Lesson 1:  Don’t let anyone talk you out of your passion.

If I had listened to the naysayers, I never would have become an architect. In high school, I paid too much attention to basketball and not enough to my math grades. So, when I told a school counselor I wanted to be an architect, she advised me to be a draftsman instead, adding that “there are no black architects.” Instead of listening to her, I got my math grades up and the rest is history.


Lesson 2: Don’t take things personally.

It’s easy to let personal snubs or doubts from others derail your focus. Over the years, Moody Nolan has surprised a number of potential clients who didn’t know until the day of our presentation that it was an African-American owned firm. Some — both white and black — have reacted as if they weren’t sure the company could do the job.

I took it in stride, realizing that if they’d never seen a black firm do the job before I would have to show them. Because each successful project tends to lead to three more, that approach has served us well.


Lesson 3: Partner with those who can do something you can’t.

When I decided to start out on my own, I partnered with Howard Nolan, a civil engineer who had been assistant director of transportation for the state of Ohio. Howard’s work in state government had given him extensive connections and relationships around the state.

The lesson is that you sometimes don’t get chosen because you’re the most qualified, but because someone knows you and trusts what you can do. People trusted Howard, and that helped us do business with those who didn’t know me.


Lesson 4: Remember who you serve.

Moody Nolan was built on a concept known as “responsive architecture.” The concept is simple: We design what our clients want and need, not what we’d like to see built.

Of course, we have some dream projects that we’d love to see come to fruition. But our first priority is to provide clients with what they need to be successful. This approach is why we’ve continued to grow.


Curtis J. Moody, president and CEO of Moody Nolan is an award-winning designer. Moody has been involved in the design of projects that exceed several billion dollars in construction over the past 40 years. A winner of the prestigious Whitney M. Young, Jr. award as an outstanding African American Architect in the United States, Moody’s designs have won nearly 200 design citations, including 30 from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and 34 from the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) — more awards than any other minority architectural firm in the United States.

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