MEET DESTINY DRAKE WEST - DRAKE INSTITUTE OF RESEARCH AND POLICY
You may be forgiven for thinking the name Destiny Drake West is familiar. In fact you probably read her Seat At The Table Feature on this very website a few months back. Destiny is not a woman easily forgotten, nor is she someone you can encapsulate into a single article, far from it. From the moment I met her I instantly wanted to know more about her story and she was, as always, kind enough to come back and share more of her amazing journey with us. When it comes to the bringing together of minds for the benefit of womankind, rarely have I ever met someone quite so passionate and put together, sitting in conversation with her feels like drinking tea with your best friend, if your best friend were Michelle Obama that is. You know she's a big deal but you can't help but feel at great ease in her presence.
Innovator and relentless in her commitment to the pursuit of women’s empowerment Destiny founded Drake Institute of Research and Policy, a nonpartisan policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. with a lofty goal is to assist women legislators at every level of government to discover issues specifically affecting women which until now were under-researched hidden sub-topics, often going unrecognised and unseen in the media or on news channels. It's safe to say that when Destiny joins any table, people are more than ready to listen. I am extremely honoured to once again be able to bring to you this inspirational fearless female…
SO, DESTINY, WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
I fell in love with law and government when I was eight years old. I dreamed of working in a high powered legal career fighting for justice and equality. My ultimate goal was to be elected to public office at the federal level. After graduating from high school, I surprised myself and everyone else when I decided to get married, have children, and be a stay-home wife for nine years.
When that marriage ended in divorce, I earned my bachelor’s degree, was elected to represent 20,000 residents of Los Angeles and served on several executive boards for organisations working to support minorities and their communities. That period of accelerated professional growth was punctuated by my pursuit of an interdisciplinary master’s degree in Criminology, Law and Society. During my studies, I acquired the skills of a social scientist… qualitative and quantitative research, writing, and statistical data analysis studied through the lenses of the legal system. Contextualising my studies with legislative analyses and case law was a natural step in the learning process for me. By the end of my first year as a graduate student, I felt ready to make the move I had planned to make for over two decades.
So, I gave away everything I couldn’t sell and moved to Washington, D.C. with my family to get some firsthand experience working on the Hill as a legislative staffer. My portfolio consisted of criminal justice policy, homelessness policy, health policy, education policy, and other issues I cared a lot about. I also worked in a similar capacity as a policy advisor for a county commissioner. It didn’t take long before realising that, despite my success in each role, I was not interested in spending years struggling against bureaucracy in an attempt to effect change that did not resonate with me as my work had before moving to D.C. It was clear, I needed to work in a role that would allow me to work more closely with members of the public and set policy priorities based on my personal convictions.
After assessing my unique skill set, educational background, experience, and professional network, I decided to launch a nonpartisan public policy think tank, the Drake Institute of Research and Policy. I believed it would be the most conducive platform for me to make a meaningful difference in society. I also believed it would put me in the best position to collaborate with brilliant minds all over the world. Since making that decision two years ago, I have questioned my judgment, qualifications, and sanity more times than I care to admit. But building my company and watching it blossom into a reputable source of information has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and we’ve only just begun.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I would usually begin my day by seeing my children off to school. Now, my day begins by preparing my three children for their daily distance learning sessions in our living room (i.e. our new focus room) and scanning the news feed on my phone for any urgent developments that I should be aware of.
Then, the first thing I do is check the Institute’s voicemail for new messages. I’ve found that inquiries made by phone typically require a quicker response from me than those made via email. Right now, the biggest project I’m working on is legislateHer, which is a web app I designed to facilitate the collaboration of women legislators and subject matter experts. I spend the bulk of my 10-12 hour workday developing and testing new features of the web app and researching strategies for bringing my technology to market. This has been a year-long technology development project that I’m proud to say is now patent-pending and ready for use. With the remaining hours of my workday, I split my time between reviewing articles submitted to me by legislators for our upcoming legislative review journal and coordinating projects with my national team of ambassadors, researchers, and communications managers.
I end my day by having dinner with my family and catching up on group texts from friends.
TO SAY YOU DO ‘IMPORTANT’ WORK IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT. HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE PRESSURES THAT COME ALONG WITH SUCH CRUCIAL FINDINGS AND THE RESPONSIBILITY OF ACCURATELY REPORTING THE DATA TO CHANGEMAKERS ACROSS THE USA?
For me, leading an organisation that tackles complex issues to help improve outcomes for women, their families, and communities can feel deeply gratifying yet burdensome at the same time. I’ve found the process to be quite stressful some days, to be honest.
The burden of seeking justice and equality for women in systems that were designed to produce outcomes skewed in favour of only a privileged few is compounded by the need to make as few errors along the way as possible or else we lose credibility. Credibility, for a research institute, is everything. With it, our research… our voices and the messages they carry are amplified and valued a bit more by members of the public and key decision-makers in government and academia. Without credibility, the Drake Institute would be rendered powerless to lead and effect change in any significant way. Consequently, I sometimes agonise over every detail of our projects hoping to fail forward if failure is inevitable. I have been fortunate, however, to build a very talented and gifted team of experts who I lean on for their knowledge and constructive feedback. I trust them fully and wholeheartedly believe in their ability to deliver the results we need for growth. They remind me that I am not on this path alone, which has been key to strengthening my resolve to try harder, be better, and do more the next time around.
That’s all any of us can really do.
HOW DO YOU HANDLE CRITICISM?
I handle criticism in the same way that I approach my work with the Institute… like the social scientist that I am.
First, I check the credibility of the source of information to make sure that the information is worth the time I’ll spend processing it. I tend to be open to most sources. Then, I analyse and interpret the information to determine its validity and contextual meaning. Next, I synthesise the information and find useful ways to use it to improve outcomes. If the criticism is directed at me specifically and I’ve determined that it’s mostly constructive, I count myself lucky. It’s another opportunity to stretch and grow even if it’s painful or uncomfortable to work through momentarily.
YOU HAVE BEEN RECOGNISED WITH MANY AWARDS AND ACCOLADES FOR YOUR WORK, HOW IMPORTANT HAVE YOU FOUND THESE TO BE IN SETTING UP YOUR BUSINESS FOR SUCCESS?
Scientific research departments and legislatures across the nation are both still male-dominated. In my opinion, this issue has persisted by design. Ordinarily, as an African American woman under the age of 35, it would statistically be more difficult for me to emerge as a leader in either of these fields, but my entrepreneurial spirit paired with my educational background and the recognition I’ve received for some of my previous professional accomplishments has helped bridge the gap of opportunity for me.
Education and awards are truly equalisers in intellectual spaces where racial, age, and gender bias have permeated the culture and stagnated the careers of many women like me. This has proven especially for me. My background has led to many opportunities to work with established researchers and policymakers. Now, the goal is to strengthen those relationships and leverage them to earn the trust of others.
YOUR PASSION FOR JUSTICE AND EQUALITY ARE EVIDENT IN YOUR WORK, THIS IS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT IN OUR TIMES OF WOMEN’S MOVEMENTS ACROSS THE GLOBE. YOUR WORK IS BRIDGING THE INFORMATION GAP AND SPOTLIGHTING ONCE UNSEEN ISSUES AFFECTING THE LIVES OF MILLIONS OF WOMEN, QUITE AN EFFORT. WHERE DO YOU SEE THE WORLD IN TEN YEARS-TIME?
I believe women will have reached what social scientists like to refer to as “critical mass” in most, if not all, major social institutions. This would include religious, educational, economic, and government institutions, which would be a major win for society as a whole. Critical mass in this context simply means that we will have reached a point in time where women will begin to change the tone and policies of each of the aforementioned institutions that we have worked so hard to integrate.
To make this goal a reality, women would need to represent at least 20 per cent of the population within each of these institutions. Ideally, we should try to achieve 30 per cent critical mass or hold a leading position within a particular institution like CEO, Commander, Governor, Mayor, or President.
I am totally convinced we can do this!
WHO OR WHAT ARE YOU MOST GRATEFUL FOR?
I have so many things to be grateful for like my beautiful children who are growing into remarkable little human beings and my supportive friends who inspire and uplift me. But I’m most grateful to be married to a man who loves me and believes in my work so much that he moved across the country, sacrificing many of his comforts along the way to invest in me financially, spiritually, and emotionally. His support has made all the difference in my life.
WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF BUSINESS ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
Find your one thing… the single most important thing you should be doing to achieve your goal and focus your attention and efforts on it. There are always competing tasks to manage, but the one thing on your list that should be prioritised is the one thing that if by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary.
That was the lesson I learned from business guru Gary Keller and it has transformed my entire approach to living a purpose-driven life.
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND DIFFICULT ON YOUR JOURNEY?
As an extrovert who thrives in social settings, it has been profoundly difficult, though necessary, for me to work in isolation for extended periods of time. Sometimes, I go off the grid, turn my phone on “do not disturb,” and lock myself away in my office where I engage in rigorous research development for hours upon hours, sometimes for days at a time.
The work environment can feel so dreadfully boring that I seriously contemplate quitting. But just when I least expect it, I’ll hit a breakthrough in my research or tech development project and experience such an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that I completely forget how difficult the process was. The feeling can be best compared to a mad scientist who breaks into a loud diabolical laugh when discovering that after many failed attempts, she has created a concoction that could change the world. There’s no feeling quite like it.
Perhaps only a bonafide nerd like me could appreciate moments like these!
WHAT’S YOUR TOP TIP FOR OUR AWESOME FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS READING THIS ARTICLE?
Invest in your support system.
Take time to celebrate the people who are part of your circle and find ways to continue adding value to their lives. It is easy to take what you need from the people who generously provide the things you need for growth and prosperity, but remembering to pour back into them is critical for the sustenance of your own success. So, don’t drain your well.
YOUR TEAM OF NATIONAL AMBASSADORS IS GROWING STEADILY. DO YOU HAVE ANY INSIGHTS ON MANAGING GROWING TEAMS?
Infrastructure or the lack thereof will determine how effective and efficient a team like the Drake National Ambassadors can be managed. Without the proper infrastructure, our team would have collapsed under pressures that typically challenge organisations like ours.
I have learned that there must be systems in place to coordinate project logistics in timely and affordable ways. This is particularly challenging when there are different time zones, personality types, professional goals, and more to factor into the equation. Before transitioning the team onto our own web app (legislateHer), which has the capability to manage every aspect of our team, we relied on a mix of third-party tools and resources. Zoom and Google suite (docs, sheets, slides, etc) were extremely helpful. Finding communication and project management methods that work well for your team is crucial to building the infrastructure you need for your team’s success and should be prioritised accordingly.
WHAT’S THE NUMBER ONE PLAYED SONG ON YOUR IPOD?
When priming myself for a productive workday, I play Level Up by Ciara.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW FOR SURE?
I know that I’ve gotten it wrong in the past and I’ll probably get it wrong again, but as long as I live I will try my best to get it right. Parenting, business, marriage, friendships…whatever it is, I’ll keep trying because I just have to get it right in the end.
DO YOU HAVE A BOOK OR FAVOURITE PODCAST RECOMMENDATION FOR OUR FEMALE CEO MEMBERS?
I highly recommend reading The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results written by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.
IF YOU COULD SIT DOWN FOR DINNER WITH THREE PEOPLE, ALIVE OR DEAD. WHO WOULD THEY BE AND WHAT WOULD YOU HOPE TO LEARN FROM EACH OF THEM?
My paternal great grandmother: to learn more about the history of my family and her role in moving us forward.
Lucille Ball: to learn more about brokering powerful business deals, as a multifaceted woman. I’d request her advice on ways to use my talents and gifts to strengthen the legacy I hope to leave behind for my family, for women, and for people from every corner of the earth for generations to come.
Hillary Clinton: to discuss leadership in the face of disappointment. I’d like to learn how to better navigated my career as a public figure while being a mom and wife even after encountering tremendous disappointment and setbacks both personally and professionally.
WHAT MAKES YOU TRULY HAPPY AND HOW DO YOU HANDLE DOWNTIME?
Aside from spending time with my family and friends, I’m happiest when I’m near the ocean or when I’m listening to live music.