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  • Writer's pictureAlejandra Garza

How a Promise to Her Grandfather Helped Tiara Hughes Achieve Professional Success

Purpose-driven, resilient, passionate, and talented—these are some of the words that can describe Tiara Hughes. From her very early years in St. Louis, MO., Ms. Hughes has been attracted to architecture and began her education by attending a gifted arts elementary school program—drawing buildings in 2nd grade, learning about blueprints in 3rd grade followed by architecture and engineering classes throughout her high school years. Always dreaming of becoming an architect, she was supported by the love of her grandparents.

Especially important throughout those early years and college, was her grandfather. “My grandfather was always there, giving me unconditional love from the very beginning,” stated Ms. Hughes. As she started college, Tiara’s beloved grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. While not knowing where the diagnosis would take him, he promised that he would be there to support her and to see her graduate from college. He kept his promise.

Her experience during those college years demonstrated the challenges of coming from an underrepresented community—no examples or mention of African-American architects, adjusting to college, experiencing student services that were not equitable, and not having a mentor that could understand her journey.

During college, Ms. Hughes spent a semester in Greece, where she was introduced to the concept of architectural preservation. Upon returning from Greece, Ms. Hughes found herself “maxed out” on her student loans and spent a semester homeless. It came as no surprise that her grandfather provided as much financial support as he could afford.

Upon seeing her graduate, and before he passed away, Ms. Hughes’ grandfather made her promise that she would:

  • Live life to the fullest.

  • Become a mentor to young girls.

  • Travel the world.

  • Never give up.

Tiara Hughes has been keeping those promises throughout the development of her personal and professional career, where she currently holds the following positions:

Senior Urban Designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). As a designer, Tiara is driven by her passion to work with communities and ensuring that they have a voice in the decision-making process, creating a space of understanding that leads to greater socioeconomic equity and cultural awareness. She believes "Ultimately our efforts to positively impact communities of color will expand outward and evolve our academic institutions, our firms, our industry and by extension, our communities."

Adjunct professor at Illinois Institute of Technology with a focus on climate change, community engagement and social justice.

Commissioner of the Chicago Landmarks Commission, where she is a voice for underrepresented communities to preserve local landmarks, especially in the South and Southwest parts of the City of Chicago.

Ms. Hughes currently serves on the Board for the National Organization of Minority Architects. Her personal experiences in the industry along with her passion for advocacy have led her to establish a national research initiative called FIRST 500, where she is Founder and Executive Director. FIRST 500 celebrates and amplifies the accomplishments of African-American women architects and drives them to increase their professional numbers.

Recently, she received the prestigious American Institute of Architects’ Associates Award, given by the Institute to associate members who “best exemplify the highest qualities of leadership and have demonstrated an unparalleled commitment to their component or region’s membership.” (Source:

Finally, when asked about what advice she would give to her younger self, Ms. Hughes provided the following advice:

  • If this industry feels lonely, you are not alone.

  • If your ideas are not heard, keeping speaking.

  • If one door closes, three others will open.

  • If there is no well to drink from, dig until you create one!

Great advice for all of us to live by.

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