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Faith and tenacity were key to her success, says Drake

by Tarice L.S. Gray

In March of 2002, Stephanie Drake had an epiphany. The long time commercial real estate finance professional would take the leap of faith into construction. She launched Drake Inc., headquartered in Washington D.C. and hasn’t regretted it since. The company has been a standout in the arena of construction, not only for having an African-American female at the helm, but for carving out a niche market embraced by clients including the Smithsonian Institution and the federal government.  Drake told The Atlanta Post that she credits her faith and her business sense for her success.

Where did your professional journey begin?

I had an abundant corporate career in commercial real estate finance. I started that back in 1995 and through 2001 that’s what I did. And when I did it, I did it with excellence. I built a reputation as an expert in the District. I started out at First Union National Bank in their commercial real estate group, as their first African-American woman officer in its history.   You have to have a lot of confidence in that kind of business atmosphere.

Where did that come from?

Going back to when I was in the sixth grade, I was always hesitant to raise my hand in class. I remember my heart would palpitate and how it really bothered me.  Even though I knew the answer, early on I had the fear of expressing myself, so all of my life I’ve been diligently working through that, through excelling at whatever I do. That’s how I was built.  I’ve always remembered that little girl that wanted to break through or be delivered from that insecurity. That’s what drives me.   When I graduated from Georgia State, I was selected and went through First Union National Bank’s corporate training program. Upon graduation, I was supposed to go into the commercial bank, but because during my rotation I asked a lot of questions and showed a genuine interest in his group and was seen as a very hard worker, a gentleman named Nick Testoni extended me an unprecedented job offer.

He said ‘I’ve never brought someone in this young but it seems like you have a very strong interest in commercial real estate.  I’m willing to take a chance on you and train you..’ I took on the opportunity without question,  without thinking about my fears and thinking about my perfectionist ways, I just saw it for what it was – God’s favor. So honestly, the confidence really comes from the same place; feeling that I need to work very hard to master whatever I sign up to do. When you work at anything with commitment and determination, confidence becomes the byproduct of your efforts and your way of life.

When did you transition into construction?

I had become an experienced commercial real estate financier and while it was financially rewarding, I wasn’t being fulfilled  on a spiritual level. As that little girl, I knew I wanted to have an impact on the world. So at that point I resolved that I learned all I needed to learn from that stint of my journey, and I “retired” from commercial real estate career as VP of Allied Capital in 2001.

I woke up one day and just decided it was time for me to go. I have always felt I had a calling and more and more I started to feel that my calling was connected to giving back and empowering communities where I live and ultimately on a global level. So I took my experience and my desire to get closer to the community development side. I didn’t have a business plan when I left,  but I knew I had to step out on faith.

I actually took a sabbatical in 2001. I did a lot of praying, meditating, trying to figure out what my next step was going to be. I remember it was March 2002 when I woke up and realized it was going to be construction. The reason I took construction as an avenue is because of the knowledge I gained  from commercial real estate development finance.

So being the A type that I am, I wanted to learn construction.  Coupled with my prior experience, I saw that I would bring some unique skills and a competitive advantage that many in construction lacked. My goal was to go into construction for a little while, but I’ve been in it ever since.   The end of 2001 to March of 2002 is quite a bit of time.

What did you do to stay professionally relevant?

I left corporate in July of 2001, right before 9-11.  And to pass time until I decided what to do next, I was doing a little consulting here and there for a couple of CDCs around town that needed help packaging their real estate deals. Providing real estate outsourcing services was a reasonable and viable option for a person with my background, but I quickly realized that really wasn’t what I wanted to do. It took me nine months to put the pieces together.   While development was where I was heading, I knew I wanted to start small, establishing a track record, and focusing on things like company infrastructure in order to effectively manage growth the way a bank would like to see it.  So I started as a very small outfit doing residential construction.   That Sunday when I woke up in March 2002, I called a guy that I trusted that had done some work at my house and said, ‘I’m thinking about starting a construction company.’ And quickly he said, ‘I’ll teach you everything you need to know.’  I went out that week and applied for my license. The word spread quickly amongst my DC professional network and before I knew it I had my first clients lined up before the actual license was in hand.   I brought that colleague in as a partner  and named the company Drake & Burgess Construction.  Our first project was the interior build-out of a row house and even did a single-family addition. My partner wasn’t ready to leave his full time position to commit fully to D&B, and I was running the day-to-day with basically off-hours help. We agreeably parted ways in order for me continue my mission and vision for the company and became Drake, Incorporated.

Were you taken seriously as a construction company headed by an African American woman by those who didn’t know you? Or did your presence and your position raise eyebrows?

Were eyebrows raised? Probably. But did I notice? No. The reason I didn’t notice is because the one thing I’ve always been is a person who just focuses on the goal and objective at hand. So I’m sure eyebrows were raised, whether negative or positive, I never allowed that to be the center point of why I do what I do. I just do it because that’s where I’m supposed to be. Also I think I quickly dismiss any misperceptions, because once I open my mouth it’s “she knows her business.” I would say that I’m a grass-roots, hands-on type of owner. For example, when I started out in residential, I sanded floors; I assisted with the rough carpentry work, and even served as a laborer for some of our electricians and plumbers.  I got involved in all of it. I’ve always been one who gets my hands dirty.

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