This architecture firm has a powerhouse CFO

Mancini Duffy’s Bolanle Williams-Olley is also an author and a nonprofit founder.
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Bolanle Williams-Olley

· 5 min read

When she graduated from New York’s Hunter College with a mathematics degree, Bolanle Williams-Olley wasn’t sure what her next step would be. Today, she’s CFO and equity partner at Mancini Duffy, a New York City architecture, design, and construction firm that boasts Verizon, KPMG, Peloton, Starbucks, and LaGuardia Airport among its clients.

She’s also the author of a book, Build Boldly: Chart Your Unique Career Path and Lead with Courage, and has founded several nonprofits, including SheBuildsLives, which funds schools in Nigeria, where she was born.

“We always ask her how she does all this and how she sleeps at night,” said Christian Giordano, president and co-owner of Mancini Duffy, who’s known Williams-Olley for more than 15 years.

Williams-Olley said it’s her courage and capacity for hard work that have gotten her to where she is. She came to the US at age 17 to attend college. After graduating, she applied for a job as a junior project accountant with architecture firm HLW, despite not having an accounting background, because the design field interested her.

HLW “hired for character,” Williams-Olley recalled. “For me, that particular interview was life-changing because I represented myself. I was like, ‘Hey, here I am, take it or leave it’...And that started…an almost 16-year journey in the architecture/interior design/construction industry.”

Over the course of that journey, Williams-Olley made confident decisions that benefited both her and her firms—and now, she’s using her example to inspire others to act boldly as well. She’s also found work that allows her to pursue her passion for giving back.

Innovative start. Williams-Olley joined Mancini Duffy as a controller in 2017. Giordano said the firm was looking for an innovative person who could help it grow, and thought that Williams-Olley, whom he knew from when they both worked at HLW, would be right for the role.

“He told me about all the great things that were happening at Mancini,” Williams-Olley recalled. “There were a lot of challenges for me…I’d never been exposed to firm-wide accounting.” In addition to being a mom to two young children and “some health challenges,” she said, “I have a nonprofit, and I wanted to make sure that with any firm I moved to, there would be value alignment.”

She took the job, and in 2018 was promoted to CFO. In 2019, she became an equity partner at the firm. Then, the pandemic happened. Remote work and lockdowns interfered with many of the firm’s projects, and it became difficult to project cash flow. The firm experienced a “serious slowdown in revenue,” Giordano said.

But Williams-Olley helped steer Mancini Duffy through the crisis. The firm is doing well, despite the slowdown in office real estate, because it has projects in many diverse areas, she said. Besides offices, the firm designs restaurants, stores, college buildings, hotels, and much more. At the same time, its design teams are focusing on redesigning workspaces for an era of hybrid work.

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“What space are you creating for your people to actually want to come into the office and work?” Williams-Olley said, “When we’re advising our clients, it’s more rethinking, ‘What does the future of the workspace look like?’”

Bridging finance and design. Finance isn’t always top of mind at architecture firms, Giordano said. Many of the staff are creative types who prioritize art and design. “But this is a business, and it has certain obligations,” he said. Where Williams-Olley shines, he said, is in her ability to reach across departments and “navigate all those personalities and very politely keep them motivated” in terms of both design and finance, he said.

To succeed as a CFO “you have to be a good communicator to your leadership group, to the people who don’t understand numbers fully” and how finance affects “the ‘why’ behind certain decisions we’re making,” Williams-Olley said.

Giving back to Nigeria. For 10 years, Williams-Olley has also operated a nonprofit organization, called SheBuildsLives, which helps fund schools in Nigeria. Its first project, which sold crocheted items to raise money, only brought in about $1,500, she said, “but that $1,500 [bought] math and English textbooks for over 200 students. We were able to get them brand new uniforms, we were able to get them whiteboards—so many things. And I saw what that impact [of] that project did for that community.”

In 2019, SheBuildsLives helped rebuild a school in the floating community of Makoko. Williams-Olley visited the school in 2021. “I thought I was going for a very simple visit. But the community welcomed me in a way I have never in my life felt or experienced,” she said. Children who had graduated and were now in high school returned to meet her.

“You could see the direct impact,” she said. “They were so proud that they attended this school. They could stand toe-to-toe with any of the private school children.” Being able to see her in person “showed them the possibility of what could happen for them.”

Wanting to inspire others in similar ways motivated Williams-Olley to write her book, which tells the story of her career success, she said. When she was deciding whether or not to join Mancini Duffy, she said, “I looked at the top 50 firms and there were not a lot of people who looked like me. And here I am now—a young, immigrant, Black CFO…I thought it was very important to put this in a book, so that it gives other people the agency to write and control their own paths.”

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.