Kimberly Dowdell, the first Black woman to lead the American Institute of Architects has some big ideas

BY Ben Ebuka Oji January 18, 2024 11:28 AM EDT
Kimberly Dowdell, president of the American Institute of Architects. Photo Credit: HOK

With urban areas across the world growing increasingly crowded and multicultural, it is imperative for experts to proactively strive for a sustainable future by enhancing surroundings with practical concepts and remedies. The newly elected President of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Kimberly Dowdell, has just the vision.

A few weeks ago, Dowdell was elected the 2024 National President of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). With a commitment to equity, inclusivity, and innovation, she is expected play a crucial role in shaping the future of architecture and design.

Bloomberg reports that in the United States, a mere 2% of licensed architects are of Black ethnicity. Expectedly, the percentage drops even further to less than 1% when considering Black women in the field. America’s architectural profession predominantly comprises older people, mostly white males, which is evident in the leadership. The inauguration of Dowdell as the 100th president of the American Institute of Architects, at 40, signifies a promising shift towards a more inclusive and diverse landscape.

During her campaign for election, Dowdell introduced an comprehensive plan that encompasses advocating for architects in practice, fostering a sense of belonging within the profession, taking decisive action against climate change, and envisioning a future that prioritizes thoughtful and visionary design.

“I think it’s important that the AIA is advocating for the prosperity and fulfillment of architects,” she told Architectural Record, ENR’s sister magazine. “By increasing our relevance and opening our world up a bit more to the public, we can attract more young people to want to pursue architecture and have more informed clients.”

With this new leadership position, Dowdell is not only making history as the 100th president of the AIA but also the first Black woman to lead the organization.

“I am the seventh female president of the American Institute of Architects, the third Black president, and the first Black female president,” Dowdell, said after accepting the presidential medal from her predecessor, Emily Grandstaff-Rice. “I am also the first millennial president. I assume this position 100 years after the first Black member joined the AIA.”

Dowdell further point out that “Being elected as the 100th president of AIA is both an honor and responsibility that I embrace wholeheartedly. My journey in architecture, from my roots in Detroit, to this influential role, has deepened my conviction that design has the power to transform communities and elevate the human experience.”

Dowdell is an architect with a deep passion for crafting extraordinary spaces that foster sustainable growth for individuals. Since her childhood in Detroit, she has been contemplating the future of cities and has nurtured a desire to rejuvenate urban areas through the power of design.

Her educational journey from Cranbrook to Harvard through Cornell, combined with her professional endeavors in Washington, D.C., and New York during her early career, have influenced her trajectory toward facilitating groundbreaking urban development initiatives.

Dowdell is a principal at HOK’s Chicago studio, a renowned architecture, engineering, and planning firm with a global reputation. Throughout the last twenty years, Dowdell has dedicated herself to enhancing the quality of life through her design work.

As a principal at HOK, she actively engages with partners worldwide to create sustainable urban environments. In 2019, she relocated to Chicago, but prior to that, she returned to her hometown of Detroit in 2015 as an experienced professional, and she spearheaded initiatives to revitalize neighborhoods, leveraging her background in real estate development and public service within the city government.

A Founder with Purpose

Dowdell’s mission in her professional career is to enhance the quality of life for everyone. Through her efforts, she has played crucial roles in establishing impactful non-profit organizations. In 2005, she co-founded SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) to regularly identify, measure, and address issues related to the “Triple Bottom Line” during the design and development process.

Additionally, in 2008, she initiated the annual community service project for the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), which has successfully organized projects in numerous cities across the United States. In 2019, Dowdell made history by becoming the first Millennial President of NOMA, and under her leadership, the organization’s membership count more than doubled within two years.

As the President of NOMA, Dowdell actively advocated for various initiatives to create opportunities for architects of color, employing a multi-generational approach that included providing access to leadership training, education support, and fostering a legacy.

Community Enlightenment and Mentorship

Beyond her design work, Dowdell commits efforts to broadening the discussion on sustainable development across the globe. Dowdell regularly shares her expertise with individuals and groups and is frequently invited to advise on issues pertaining to architecture, cities, sustainability, education, diversity, equity, inclusion, and leadership.

She firmly believes in the importance of mentorship, as it has played a crucial role in her own achievements. She has experience both as a mentor and as someone who has received mentorship. Although her schedule allows for limited availability, she does provide a select number of office hour appointments for her mentees.


Dowdell, driven by a fervent desire to foster a society that values fairness and inclusivity, established DEBI – an acronym representing Diversity, Equity, Belonging, and Inclusion.

She urges corporations, educational institutions, and governmental bodies to adopt DEBI as an indispensable instrument for the enduring prosperity and triumph of collective human endeavors. Dowdell possesses extensive expertise in addressing the obstacles that confront DEBI within the realm of architecture.

Other Endeavors

The renowned architect, who has received prestigious accolades, possesses an extensive network of professionals in the real estate, finance, design, engineering, and construction sectors. Engaging with multiple institutions and organizations, Dowdell has been granted board seats by esteemed entities such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Cornell University Board of Trustees, Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), Chicago Central Area Committee (CCAC), Ingenuity Chicago, and Architects Foundation.