Imagine how different our careers would be if we allowed our hearts to guide us and simply let opportunity lead the way.
For Holli Draines, it was the idea of serving and protecting her community that appealed to her nature most. And all it took was a college internship to help her find her passion. With the encouragement of her family and mentors to take leaps of faith, Draines would go from being a hometown patrol officer to becoming a Secret Service agent to later owning a security firm.
Draines followed her gut when she decided to major in criminal justice at La Salle University in Philadelphia. At the time, she only knew that she wanted a career that would have her interacting with and helping people, while making an impact in her community. Thanks to a summer internship with the Hartford Police Department, she realized that being a police officer could be a great fit for her. As an intern, she was assigned to the Crime Analysis Unit that analyzes the different call trends of the services rendered to various communities from a crime perspective. However, the ride-alongs are what exposed her to what it was like to be out and about in the community, and she discovered the “adrenaline was not scary” to her.
It was then that she knew what she wanted to do and where she wanted to do it. “If I was going to serve, I wanted to serve in the city where I had ties, where my roots were. I didn’t want to go to another city,” she says.
In 1998 she entered the police academy where she graduated at the top of her class of 29 officers. Then she joined her hometown police force. “They told me there had never been a Black female that had graduated top of her class,” Draines says. She was one of only four women, all of color, who graduated from the academy at that time.
She loved police work and she loved serving her community. “At the end of the day, police work, like any profession, isn’t perfect. Police work is one of those disciplines where there’s no real gray area. You either love it or you hate it.”
In 2001, Draines furthered her career and pursued her master’s in forensics at the University of New Haven while working full time. It was in grad school that she was recruited to become a Secret Service agent by a former Hartford police officer, who was also a student in her class. For two years he encouraged her to apply. “I really was happy in Hartford for so many reasons, but he said, ‘What does it hurt to apply?’ so I did,” she shares. Less than a year after applying, she was accepted into the Secret Service.
Joining the Secret Service would be the first time Draines would work outside of her hometown, but the support of her relatives and her police family validated her decision. “My mother would always tell me, ‘You never know where life is going to lead you. You may not have this opportunity where your life will allow you the space to do what you have space to do right now,’ ” says Draines.
In 2004, she began her Secret Service career in Brooklyn, where she was able to work on everything from investigations and white-collar crimes to protection, then she transferred to the office in White Plains, New York, to be closer to her family. In 2012, she finally got the call to work in Washington, D.C.
“I was assigned to the Dignitary Protective Division, which is the first step to working with the President and the Vice-President [of the United States]. You’re working with other cabinet members at this point,” she explains.
Her first assignment was working on the detail for Janet Napolitano, former Secretary of Homeland Security. “From there you learn it’s not that you never make mistakes, but you try and keep your ears open, you take direction from folks that are senior to you for guidance and teaching,” Draines shares.
A year later she received her assignment to work the Presidential Protective Detail, but she describes the moment as bittersweet.
“I was humbled. I was grateful. But there were some people that had asked for that who weren’t selected for whatever reasons, having nothing to do with their capabilities. Not everyone can be chosen for everything, and so when you have friends and you all want the same thing, it’s hard when someone gets it and someone doesn’t,” she says.
To this day, Draines is honored by the opportunity she had to serve “the seat that was held by the Commander in Chief.” “That’s a big deal. Obviously, during that time, the Commander in Chief happened to be our first-ever African-American President. It was an extra lift on the agency because of the amount of attention that he drew,” she says.
While agents are working on the Presidential Protective Detail, the agency builds its staff up until they are ready to handle what comes with being on the President’s detail. “You’re not ready. Nor do you even have the knowledge or the skill set to both, start at the agency and then be ready for these high-level officials that have a much higher risk associated with them,” she says. Draines had to gradually work her way up, starting with Susan Rice.
According to Draines, the agency prepares you in stages. “I gained a great amount of exposure, experience and knowledge on how to work in that space; how to navigate in that space. Now I’m in D.C., and it’s completely different than when I was back in New York because [I was] working with a completely different group of people,” she adds. Everything that she learned led to her assignment with the First Lady’s detail. “I feel like, saying it was a privilege and an honor is an understatement,” she admits.
Draines’s career was reaching new heights and she decided that she would retire as a Secret Service agent. However, in 2014, family became a priority after the passing of her mother and sister. She would become a full-time aunt to her nephew and knew that the life of a Secret Service agent wouldn’t allow her to nurture her teenage relative the way he needed to be. “It changed the season and the direction of my life. In my mind, I was going to retire from the Secret Service because I loved them. I grew to love them the way I love the Hartford Police Department,” she shares.
Draines quietly stepped down from her position in the agency, but was able to take the relationships she had built and the knowledge she had gained to start her own security consulting firm.
“The firm literally came to be before my very eyes. The people that I needed to align with, the name, the logo, every aspect of it at an appointed time and place,” Draines says. What makes Draines’s Elite Strategy Global special is that it is 100 percent minority-owned and -operated. She also intentionally recruited women of color and placed them at the helm in leadership roles.
“As a woman of color who has made a career in law enforcement, I wanted to create something that could lend itself as an inspiration to young women who aspire to have careers in this field by deliberately aligning myself with women who have done it just as I have,” she says. Draines’s new business came in full-circle with her past as a Secret Service agent when her team worked the 25th annual Essence Festival in New Orleans, providing security for Mrs. Obama during her special appearance. They will also provide security for this year’s ESSENCE + New Voices Entrepreneur Summit & Target Holiday Market.
“It was good to see them again in the space that I was in,” says Draines. Although she did not leave the agency the way she wanted to, she was able to establish a business despite the grief that she experienced. Seeing the past validate the future was another assurance that this leap of faith will reap great reward.