#MentorMonday: Chukwudifu ‘Chuks’ Francis Okwuje
Welcome to #MentorMonday! Mondays are dedicated to celebrating Black LICENSED Architects, Designers, and individuals in the profession of Architecture! The questions asked to these individuals are to allow us into their lives and to be used as an inspiration. I hope you all enjoy this series. The opinions and views expressed do not reflect those of America’s Hidden Gem(TM). They are exclusively opinions of those by whom they’re shared.
My name is Chukwudifu ‘Chuks’ Francis Okwuje. I am the Principal Architect of Master and Commander Construction
Management + Architects + Planners
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?
My Parents, Dr. Philip Chukwunonso Okwuje, MD and Dr. Mary Imelda Okwuje, PhD, are my greatest champions and
critics. My Dad brought us to the United States of America (USA) with ten (10) $100 bills in his pocket. As an immigrant
by birth, I would never have become a Licensed Architect in the USA without their complete and thorough commitment to my success, career, well-being, and professional accomplishment.
Early in my youth, my Mom, a Teacher and Educator of Policy Studies in Educational Administration, would take us with her on trips to downtown Chicago – in particular, the original Marshal Fields Building and Merchandise Mart. It was when she took my brother and I to visit the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) soon after it opened in 1978, that my curiosity really increased. We went up to the Skydeck, and I was enthralled by the sheer bulk and grace of the structure. I didn’t yet know the word, ‘Architect’, ‘Engineer’, or ‘Designer’ but then and there said, “this is what I want to do, and I will be in charge!
My Dad inspired me through his work as a Board Certified Physician (OB/Gyn, Subspecialty: Urogynecology). I have
always admired his work ethic and integrity to his profession. He would take us with him on his ‘rounds’ at Cook County Hospital, Chicago (another one of my forever favorite buildings) where he let me hang out in his office while I did my homework. After he was done with patients for the day and many other similar exposures to healthcare facilities, the most exciting tour I ever got was getting to see a surgical suite where he took care of patients to make them well. This emboldened and further calcified my commitment. I promised myself that healthcare architecture would be my core specializations, and I would design/build a hospital system in this life.
Throughout my adolescence and high school, my dad and mom actively supported my creative exploration. Being of
Nigerian Descent, there was a tug of war. My Dad preferred I go to med school or become a lawyer. As far as he was
concerned, Architect’s die broke. When I went off to college, my mom bought me my first camera: a Pentax MX-5 body and a lens kit comprised of macro, zoom, and 35mm lenses. Throughout my college experience, they were both adamant that I take on a more reliable profession and skill set that would be valued in the larger global market. Consequently, I acquiesced and obtained my MBA in Healthcare Administration and Finance.
Throughout my Intern Architect training and Architects Registration Examination (ARE), it was the ‘Business Side of
Architecture’, that I focused upon. It quickly became apparent to me that my business skills were/are more valuable than the ‘Practice of Architecture’. Determined not to become a ‘cog in a machine’ and not to mention, my mother’s repetitive daily mantra, “Use your MBA”, the rest she said is easy, for administration is 90% of any work. Another one of her favorite expressions was, “anyone can get a PhD, few know how to USE it!”
When I finally passed the ARE, and received my first registration in the State of Wisconsin, my Dad said, “welcome, Jr”. No other statement could have washed away the toil and sacrifice of 20yrs but his words. To bring honor to one’s parents, family, and name, is the path to generational wealth, and legacy.
What does it mean to be a black architect/ designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?
Being a black architect/planner is a great honor I do not take for granted, and knowing the world’s greatest architects designed/built the pyramids in Egypt is ever so inspiring. Yes, I always do feel a high level of responsibility representing and advocating for marginally underrepresented groups, interests, and communities.
What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/ designer?
Generally, I believe obstacles in life are to help us all grow, and navigating these obstacles in school and especially in the professional world contributes to the much-needed experience for professional growth. Lack of opportunities is one major obstacle we always face as minority architects/planners. I remember earlier on in my career when I had just relocated to the US, I had a hard time getting work. There were always preconceptions or misconceptions about my experience, what I could do or what I brought to the table. Lack of diversity is another obstacle both in architectural education and practice. You’re sometimes challenged mentally and emotionally when you do not recognize yourself in your surroundings. That’s why I believe we must cultivate and encourage more next-generation architects and planners!
Should we ignore race in this profession?
As long as our profession is geared to serve the public and the public is made up of a myriad of black, brown, white and in between, race in the profession can never be ignored. Embracing diversity generates great new ideas, presents new ways to cater to people, and brings out the best in the profession.
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?
Create, build and nurture your brand always! Put your best foot forward wherever you find yourself – in class, studio, break rooms, library, sports field, and online – especially online. Your online profiles (Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, podcasts, websites) are your front office, they are the first impression the world gets of you so always be your best self online. Never underestimate the power of networking – attend school events, participate in competitions and alumni events. Join as many extracurricular organizations as you can and stay active and relevant. To this day, many of the hands that have pulled me up the career ladder are from some associations I formed during my time in graduate school. Keep learning something new every day, there are no limits to knowledge– learn a new skill– photography, videography, cooking, dancing, drawing, new language – whatever it may be. I have found that hiring decisions are not always based on only your hard skills, but many times your soft skills may end up be the deciding factor. Finally, always keep pushing, there will be many no’s along the way but there also will be some yes’s – so keep focused and stay motivated for those yes’s!
Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?
I was quite disappointed when I did not pass my professional exam on the first try, I, however, took the opportunity to go back to the drawing board, reassess my goals, applied myself, and came back stronger and better. Don’t be afraid to fail, there’s always an opportunity to grow and learn in failure.
How important is representation?
Representation is so critical! You can mostly be what you see – seeing people who look like you, speak like you, come from the same place as you always serve as an inspiration to aspire!