CEE senior Damilola Taiwa interviews CEE alumnus Keith Searles
Damilola Taiwo is a CEE senior with a primary in structural engineering and a secondary in construction management. She is a Student Adviser for the CEE department and is involved with the National Society of Black Engineers. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue an M.S. in structural engineering.
Keith A. Searles (BS 96) is founder, owner and CEO of Urban GIS Inc., an infrastructure-focused consulting firm that provides traditional GIS consulting, application development, field data collection and staff augmentation with more than 30 employees and offices in Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis and Cleveland. It was named Business of the Year in 2014 by Robert Morris University. Searles mentors students from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, providing them with internships and post-graduate employment opportunities. He has been recognized by the Chicago Defender through their Men of Excellence Award program. Searles and Urban GIS support several scholarship funds at the University, all established to honor a friend, colleague or mentor and designed to encourage under-represented groups in STEM fields. Here, Searles explains how his life and career have been shaped by everything from his talent for hip-hop to his deep spirituality and the desire to help others.
What led you to the University of Illinois to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering?
After taking four years of architectural drafting and participating in various architecture programs, late in my high school career I decided to pursue civil engineering. I applied to the University of Illinois at the eleventh hour, as I initially had my heart set on going to college out of state. Once I was accepted by the university, they offered me a full academic scholarship. I knew I had to take advantage of such a fantastic opportunity. Midway through my time at U of I the civil engineering program became number one in the country, and it became very clear to me that I had made the right decision.
What drove you to start your own company?
After graduating, I started with a large consulting firm, Patrick Engineering, where many other U of I grads were also employed. In 2005, fellow co-workers at Patrick, excited for the U of I basketball team, encouraged me to make a song for the then-undefeated Illini team. The song was titled “The O.K.” and it became my first official release as the hip-hop artist K-Sera. The song took off that February, and provided a great anthem for the country’s best fans and for one of the all-time great teams in college basketball. I started writing the song with prophetic visions of large-scale exposure of the song through various media outlets, and the results were indeed prophetically accurate, with the song obtaining exposure through two articles in Chicago newspapers, guest appearances at two radio stations, a CBS television appearance, a performance during the Final Four weekend festivities in St. Louis, and tremendous support in Champaign and Chicago. The song’s success and revenue generation translated into thousands of dollars of song proceeds being donated to a worthy cause. Everything I had visualized came to pass, and my obedience in giving was a life-changing experience. Because of the confidence gained from fulfilling the visions and the one-on-one conversations I was having with God during this time period, I was led to step out on faith and start my own business. I was a little nervous about making such a big career change with limited experience in running a business, but it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve never worked harder in my life – but it’s extremely rewarding and I LOVE IT. You know what they say, if you love what you do you never work a day in your life.
What are some difficult and rewarding aspects of being an entrepreneur?
Early on, I spent a lot of time on business development and marketing for my company. Once I started getting a little success I pulled back too much on that front. While I needed to spend a lot of time on doing the consulting work and running various aspects of the business, I learned the hard lesson that you have to keep planting seeds. I learned a lot during my 12 years as an entrepreneur, and we have been blessed to see the company grow from one person to 30 staff members over our 10 years in business. We’ve also expanded from just being a Chicago-based company to developing a presence in Atlanta, St. Louis, Denver and Louisiana. The most rewarding part is to know that you are a vital part of the economy where your efforts directly make the difference in people being able to take care of their families.
I understand you’ve established some scholarship funds in honor of colleagues who have passed. What motivated you, and what impact you hope these scholarships will have?
Quiana Cleveland and I were very close business partners and former classmates at U of I. She was a multifaceted and dynamic professional engineer who served as a pioneer to African-American women in the civil engineering profession. She co-founded my first startup called Urban Infrastructure. Together, we set the foundation for what would ultimately become Urban GIS Inc. Upon her passing in 2015, I created a scholarship in her honor to enable other young women of color to pursue degrees in engineering and other STEM fields at the University of Illinois.
The Yvette B. Hernandez Scholarship was in observance of an amazing colleague, and more importantly, an incredible person – revered, admired and praised for her enthusiasm and glowing personality. As the GIS Manager of Urban GIS, her work ethic was unrivaled; her passionate concern and care for fellow co-workers unparalleled. After her passing in January 2017, I established a second U of I scholarship designed to aid young diverse women who, like Yvette, possess a true passion for Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and geosciences.
Additionally, myself and other alumni support the Dean Parker Tribute Scholarship, because of the dedication and work Dean Paul E. Parker put into the Morrill Engineering Program (MEP), helping innumerable minority students like myself make it through difficult STEM programs at the University.
You are also very involved in your community. Can you speak to some of the things you hope to accomplish?
I support many community initiatives such as Project H.O.O.D. (Helping Others Obtain Destiny). Created in 2012, this group empowers people with supporting guidance and information, and provides tools necessary to become peacemakers, problem-solvers, leaders and entrepreneurs in their communities.
Over the years I have volunteered in a variety of ministry capacities working with organizations such as the Cambridge School of Chicago, New Beginnings Church, New Faith Church, and now Soul City Church. I have been increasingly asked to be a motivational speaker at various high schools, elementary schools, graduations and STEM-related programs. My true passion is to help young people to obtain increased confidence and a vision of what is possible.
Lastly, I am an adviser for the University of Illinois Professional Science Master’s program and Morrill Engineering Program, and with Robert Morris University. I am always open to mentoring young people by assisting them in career preparation and planning.
What advice do you have for students here at Illinois?
Strive for excellence – turn people into believers. This industry is not for the faint of heart or for those who are not strong-willed. You have to welcome challenges and be resolved that if it doesn’t break you or kill you, then it has to make you stronger. Be multi-dimensional and establish various facets to your value proposition. Have strong interpersonal skills. Being just a one-dimensional techy isn’t good enough these days. Lastly, don’t let others or even your own poor thinking limit you or box you in. My life motto and favorite quote I’ve ever created is, “never let them put you in a box until they put you in the box.”