Zweig Group’s 2021 Jerry Allen Courage in Leadership Award winner on being nominated and what it meant to win the prestigious award.
By Liisa Andreassen
The first award was given out in 2013. It’s Zweig Group’s Jerry Allen Courage in Leadership Award and each year since then it’s been awarded to someone working in an architecture, engineering, planning, or environmental firm who has made tremendous impacts on the company through courageous leadership. The award winner is someone who has overcome obstacles to advance their firm to a new level of success. Nominees can be in any role and come from firms of all sizes and types.
Nathelyne A. Kennedy, founder, president, and CEO of Nathelyne A. Kennedy & Associates, Inc., a Houston-based civil engineering firm, was the award recipient in 2021 and says she was very much surprised – and pleasantly so.
“I knew nothing about receiving the award,” she says. “I felt elated that WSB thought this much of me; I was so proud.”
After engineering and consulting firm WSB (Minneapolis, MN) acquired NAK in 2019, it chose to nominate Kennedy because of her impressive career and the impact she’s made on the industry.
“She leads by example, cultivates relationships, and has built a reputation for herself,” says Bret Weiss, CEO of WSB. “She’s faced many challenges along her tenured career, but they never got in the way of her building one of the most successful, black, female-owned engineering firms in Texas. She’s one-of-a-kind and deserved to be recognized for her impressive career and advocacy efforts over the years. She’s a true role model and an example of great strength and tenacity.”
Weiss adds that they’re fortunate to still have her as part of their team, ensuring that their clients receive the same exceptional service to which they’ve become accustomed.
“She supports our business development efforts around the Houston area in a limited role and is supporting the transition of NAK to WSB,” Weiss says.
When WSB acquired NAK, it allowed WSB to expand its footprint and build brand awareness in the Houston area because clients trust her. Following the acquisition, Kennedy shared her expertise and the extensive network she had established in the Houston region over the past decades.
In 1959, Kennedy was the first black woman to receive an engineering degree from a college or university in Texas. After beginning her engineering career designing highway bridges throughout the Midwest, she brought her technical precision to Houston in the 1980s, designing bridges for the widening of Interstate 10. She founded NAK in 1981 and, as her firm completed bridge design on the majority of Houston’s freeways, she nurtured young talent into the next generation of engineering stars – one of her protégés even participated on a team that in the 1990s set standards for bridge girder design in Texas.
Committed to advancing the engineering profession, Kennedy has served on the Texas Turnpike Authority Board of Directors and on advisory committees for Texas Southern University, the University of Houston Downtown, and her own alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
NAK was founded as a consulting engineering firm to work with government, institutional, and commercial clients to deliver practical solutions for highway, mass transit, street, bridge, aviation, port, water and wastewater, educational campus, and sports complex projects and has been an integral part of teams charged with delivering major building programs. For example, it was part of the $324 million first-ever light rail system for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County and Houston’s three professional sports arenas. It has also helped master plan teams to conceive solutions for multi-building complexes such as the $3.2 billion Port of Houston Bayport Terminal and university campuses.
In 2006, Prairie View A&M named a building in her honor, the Nathelyne Archie Kennedy Building, which houses the School of Architecture and Art. Kennedy has also been honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration with their prestigious Minority Business Woman of the Year Award and by U.S. Black Engineer as Entrepreneur of the Year. Today, she continues to audit drawings for the firm’s most complex projects.
“It’s really been an honor to be recognized for the accomplishments I’ve achieved over my 55-year engineering career,” she says. “It’s always humbling to know you’ve made a difference and I’m so proud that my experience and journey has inspired other women to pursue engineering degrees and explore entrepreneurship.”
She says that overall, her journey has been a rewarding one, mostly having to do with the people in it – staff and other engineering colleagues – but also accomplishing what she was not so sure was possible in the beginning.
“It has given meaning to my life and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” she says.
Kennedy believes that awards such as the Jerry Allen Courage in Leadership Award will influence others to help young entrepreneurs reach their full potential in their chosen careers. She also hopes to see more women heading up their own firms.
“I’m honored to be a recipient of this award and to be in the company of so many successful and admirable award winners,” she says.
Weiss was equally thrilled that Kennedy received the Jerry Allen Courage in Leadership Award.
“Nathelyne treats her staff with a lot of respect,” he says. “She invests in people of color to advance them in our industry, an area that is severely lacking, and is continuing to work hard and show how important leadership is in our industry, regardless of who you are. I am so proud that she has been recognized by our industry for her extraordinary accomplishments.”
Kennedy accepted the prestigious award in Denver, Colorado, during Zweig Group’s 2021 ElevateAEC Conference & Awards Gala.