by Georgia State alumna Sarah Joy Richards (B.A. ’15)
In 2001, Stephanie Y. Drake was vice president for Allied Capital, the investment firm’s first-ever African American woman to ascend to the position. In seven quick years she built a strong career in the commercial real estate development arena.
Then, at the age of 32 and at the top of her game, she retired.
While her work was financially rewarding, Drake says she wasn’t fulfilled.
“I just wasn’t looking to move up in corporate anymore. My heart’s interest is in community development,” she said. “For me, it’s always about making as much of an impact as I can.”
After some deep introspection, on a leap of faith, she set out on her own and started Drake Incorporated, a Washington D.C.-based construction and real estate firm. At the heart of her mission was to make a difference in her community — to not only build better structures and landscapes, but also build collaborative relationships, and create jobs to employ the underserved. For Drake, whose former career was a commercial real estate executive, it meant she would have to learn how to literally build — not only structures but a company.
“I had plenty of experience with finance — due diligence, underwriting, deal closings et cetera, but very little when it came down to brick and mortar,” she said. So, she put on a hard hat and learned as she went. Starting slow, Drake Incorporated began as a small outfit focusing on residential construction. “I renovated homes, sanded floors, I pretty much touched all of it,” she said.
In 2003, her fledgling company landed a small $10,000 contract to build a partition wall at the Museum of Natural History. True to her mission, Drake turned that project into a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex. Drake Incorporated has served as a general contractor on several building and renovation projects for the venerable institution. She leveraged her excellent work and customer service into multi-million dollar contracts with many governmental agencies — the National Institutes of Health, the General Services Administration, and the Department of Labor, to name a few.
As her company grew, so did her ability to give back. Her business has provided pro-bono assistance such as light electrical work and repairs to nonprofits and community organizations over the years. Her achievements have been recognized by Essence magazine, the Washington Business Journal, the Atlanta Post and INC5000.
At 15 years, her highest profile project was the National Museum of African American History and Culture as one of the contractors for Clark Smoot Russell JV. For the 10-level, 400,000 square-foot museum, Drake’s team completed all the interior framing, insulation, drywall, finishes and ceilings; including the wall panels throughout the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater.
“It was a very complicated project. If it’s never been done before, the Smithsonian is probably going to ask for it,” Drake said, laughing. “But it was very rewarding for me to play a part in the construction of this historic structure.”
Drake now finds herself at another pivotal moment in her life, pausing after this monumental achievement to discover her “next-next” step. She feels deeply in her heart the community is calling her to serve in a different way. She intends to bring all her expertise and drive to support young people, particularly girls and young women, in figuring out and achieving their hearts’ desire. Drake is developing a community-focused nonprofit to work in high schools and colleges, providing mentoring and career advice to youth in the Washington, D.C. area.
“If this little sixth grade girl who was afraid to raise her hand in class grew up to achieve extraordinary heights I’ve realized in my career, imagine what is available — the sky’s the limit for every child. I want that to be my legacy — building structures and building people,” she said.