Tiara Hughes made an early foray into the world of architecture after being accepted into a gifted arts program in second grade and gravitating toward buildings and drawings. After attending architecture school at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, she relocated to Chicago in 2016, hoping to find more diversity and create connections with other Black women in the field. She soon found that there was no easy way to meet these colleagues, and learned that fewer than 500 of the more than 100,000 licensed architects in the U.S. are Black women. That’s when she founded First 500, a now-international organization enabling aspiring and practicing Black female architects to connect with each other and access educational and professional resources that will help them advance their careers. Now a senior urban designer and project manager at SOM in Chicago, Hughes discusses forging connections both in and out of the office.


Did you meet any Black women architects during your education?

No, I never met one until I was well into practice. Black women architects make up less than 1 percent of all licensed architects in the U.S., so it’s a very isolating place to be in, and a very distinguished place to be in as well. It makes it difficult for Black girls who are studying, or even for Black girls who are interested in architecture, to have that direct connection. That’s really what the First 500 community is about: spreading that awareness and making sure that Black girls and women feel supported in architecture.


How much of your work deals with barriers to licensure that Black women may face?

We’re making sure that Black women in college are creating their Architectural Experience Program accounts and maintaining those annually. We’re also making sure that they’re aware of different fellowships that give them more of an equitable chance of getting into a large firm. We’re making sure they’re connected with different scholarships specifically for them—you do not need to be top of your class to qualify for these types of grants and scholarships. In the future, we hope to build upon that.


You’re a licensed real-estate broker. How does that inform your work as an architect?

As an architect, I work with developers all the time, so understanding the laws and the highest and best uses for property has been invaluable for connecting with our clients. With respect to First 500, promoting my experiences in both real estate and design, among other interests and areas of expertise, sends the message to women and girls that you do not have to be siloed in one track. If you have other passions, you can absolutely tap into those as well. They will undoubtedly make you a stronger, more informed designer.


How does your work with First 500 intersect with your career at SOM?

Following the murder of George Floyd, a lot of firms reacted and shifted gears, and SOM was one of those. What’s been really powerful for us is the follow-through—implementing a 34-item Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Action Plan and continuing a dialogue around the firm pertaining to equity. We’ve also been very intentional about the relationships we’re developing with other firms we’re working with and communities we’re seeking to lend our expertise to. My role in all of that is serving as one of the co-leaders of global equity initiatives that we have within the firm. SOM has also created a scholarship in the name of Robert L. Wesley, the first and only Black partner we’ve had.