Sunday Conversation: With a flurry of firsts, Fentrice Driskell looks to open doors for others

Politics has always held the interest of Fentrice Driskell, an attorney at Carlton Fields and one of the panelists for the upcoming Wonder Women Unite business seminar. Photo courtesy of Sean/Pics and Flixs
Politics has always held the interest of Fentrice Driskell, an attorney at Carlton Fields and one of the panelists for the upcoming Wonder Women Unite business seminar. Photo courtesy of Sean/Pics and Flixs
Published October 15 2017
Updated October 15 2017

It was during a summer academic camp for high school students at Northwestern University that Fentrice Driskell spoke the words that forever changed her life. As everyone went around introducing themselves and proclaiming their college aspirations, Driskell realized suddenly she hadn't settled on a school. So she blurted out the first one that came to mind.

Harvard.

When school started up again, Driskell visited and applied to other universities but was laser-focused on attending the elite school.

"I started telling people 'I'm going to Harvard,'" she said. "I did everything I was supposed to do: the letters of recommendation; taking the SAT II."

Soon, Driskell's village of family, teachers, and friends were invested in seeing her reach her goal.

"It was a community effort to get me there," she said. "My teachers and guidance counselors did everything they could to ensure I would go."

And go she did, graduating from the Ivy League institution in 2001. It was yet another notch on Driskell's belt of achievement, which includes graduating first in her class at Lake Gibson Senior High School, being the first alum inducted into its hall of fame, the first black woman student government president at Harvard, and one of the first black women to make partner at Carlton Fields, where she practices commercial litigation, consumer finance defense, and bankruptcy litigation.

The Lakeland native is just as dogged and determined in her professional life, earning accolades as "Mentor of the Year" at her firm, being named a fellow with the Leadership Counsel on Legal Diversity, and being recognized by the Florida Association for Women Lawyers as a "Leader in the Law" in 2015.

Driskell — a former president of Tampa's George Edgecomb Bar Association — said she relishes walking into unchartered territory and conquering the unknown – especially if it inspires and makes a way for other women.

"I'm used to being the first," she said. "If I can break down a barrier and leave a door open for women coming behind me, I'm happy to do it."

On Thursday, Driskell joins a panel to talk about super powers at a "Wonder Women Unite" business seminar. She recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times correspondent Kenya Woodard about facing adversity, the drive to be the best and future political aspirations.

You've stated that a Wonder Woman is someone who has overcome the challenges that can pop up on the path to success. What's a challenge that you've had to overcome?

The year before I became student government president at Harvard, I'd ran the year before as vice president with a white man and lost by less than 100 votes. The next year, the student paper didn't profile me as a contender for the (president's) office but they featured all these white men. I didn't have language for it then but it was unconscious bias, even though there had been two women presidents before. The following year I ran again, this time as president and a black man as a running mate. There were a lot of attacks, which was pretty intense for student politics. But we prevailed and won by the largest margin in history at that time.

What were the lessons from that experience?

You never give up. At times, you will feel so much pressure that it will make you question your path and purpose but in the end you will win. You will love honoring your purpose. Another thing I learned is how to work with people who, moments before, had been my adversary. (Being president) wasn't about me and my ego, it was about honoring the promises I made to students.

How did you get interested in electoral politics?

My junior year of high school, I took advanced placement government and economics and I learned there was something called political science. That class impacted me so much. I knew that's what I wanted to study. I applied to Florida's Girls State. I go there and had the audacity to run for every office, including governor. The guy who would be the salutatorian for my high school class told me "don't get your hopes up." Well, 17-year-old Fentrice was like, 'Who are you to tell me what I can't do?' So I ran for governor and I won. It was a phenomenal education in government. That let me know I am going to college to study political science and I was going to be a lawyer someday.

So do you have any political aspirations of your own?

I am fascinated by politics and I care about the political issues of the day such as healthcare, smart criminal justice reform, and transit and transportation. I think where we have to focus is in connecting policy to real people. The job for us now is to disrupt the echochamber. You do that through conversations that can be intense and uncomfortable. My way of giving back now is helping the community. But you never know what life can bring or where it will take you. So stay tuned.

You're passionate about gender equality, especially in your field. What efforts and initiatives have you been involved to increase gender equality in the profession?

The Young Lawyers Diversity committee of the Florida Bar Association commissioned a study in 2015 and 2016. The results were less than favorable in pay equity, onboarding and returning to work, being mistaken for the court reporter, and other areas. These things are still happening in 2017. I've been mistaken for the court reporter for at least a third of the hearings I've attended. I'm a member of the Florida Bar's Special Committee on Gender Bias. We issued a 12-point plan aimed at addressing gender bias. I'm vice-chair of the bar's Gender Equality Subcommittee that's charged with implementing the plan. There's still an education that needs to take place. I applaud the Florida Bar for taking this on.

I would like to see an increase in awareness around implicit bias and gender bias. I would like to see the number of female equity partners in law firms rise. I think (the 12-point plan) has the potential to change how the profession operates when it comes to gender equality.

What's the outlook for women in law?

Thirty-eight percent of attorneys are women and women represent 39 percent of Florida judges. More than 50 percent of women who leave the profession report an unhealthy/toxic work environment and lack of professional growth among the reasons. I want to see us make strides in all those areas. The stats are even worse for women of color attorneys. That's why as president (of the George Edgecomb Bar Association), increasing our scholarships meant a lot to me and that's why creating the historical society was important. I am hopeful a rising tide will lift all boats. I can see ways equality can get injected in the conversation and include intersectionality.

What's drives you to be your best?

I always had the best grades in my classes. I liked school, I loved learning. I liked to make the best grades. Being the best is about embodying the spirit of excellence in whatever you're doing. If you focus on being the best you can be in the space you occupy, magic can happen.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.


>>IF YOU GO

Wonder Women Unite, a business seminar, runs from 5:45-8 p.m. on Thursday (Oct. 19) at the Kaizen Collaborative, 5215 W Laurel St., Suite 110. Attendees will gather inspiration, advice and enjoy networking opportunities. Panelists include attorney Fentrice Driskell, legendary broadcaster Gayle Sirens and former Air Force pilot Deb Cheslow. Complimentary appetizers, wine and drinks will be served. Dress is business casual. Proceeds from the event benefit the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women. Purchase tickets at wonderwomenunitetampa.eventbrite by Wednesday (Oct. 18).

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