"It's not that I'm a troublemaker," Kevin Drake says, smiling across the table at his girlfriend/business partner, Meg Strouse (who once worked for OC Weekly). "I just don't like to be told what to do."
He's the owner of e-liquid company Drake's Vapes, but the thin, 34-year-old with bright blue eyes doesn't resemble a bro blowing obnoxious plumes of smoke in public. Instead, Drake's face is the kind needed by the vape community to gain mainstream acceptance: a serious entrepreneur, constantly working to make Drake's and Vape Goddess, Strouse's company, the most top-of-the-line, professional and safe e-liquid companies out there.
Drake doesn't come from business school or even the suit-and-tie world. It's been an arduous journey from an ideal California childhood to being a rock star to drunken debauchery to prison time to finally landing as a mellow, handpan-playing, small business owner. By 18, he was expelled from two schools and constantly getting in trouble with police, whether for graffiti or reckless driving. At 22, Drake joined Jared Leto's band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. "That was when my alcoholism started," he says. "It's not their fault; it's just tour life."
The combination of being on the road for months at a time combined with Leto's nightly reviews of each show, broken down frame by frame, made Drake go off the deep end. He quit the band after a couple of years, and then slinked into a booze-filled world that reached its nadir in 2007, when Drake faced his second DUI charge and was dropped into a nine-month in-patient rehab. After that, it was straight to Jamestown State Prison and Fire Camp for 44 months. Drake's daughter was born while he was there. "There's gotta be a yin to the yang," he says. "If you go that far into your own hell, you need to come back up."
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When Drake was finally released, he was broke. He quit smoking at the request of his daughter and discovered e-cigarettes, the industry that would re-define his life. "I love creating flavors, the passion, the creativity," Drake enthuses. "I'll spend 10 hours a day trying to perfect a flavor." He's already worked on making his products something the FDA will approve. "We're working with a professional distributor called eGains and moving production to an OSHA-certified facility."
Yet it goes beyond the physical product. Drake says he's up against not only Big Tobacco, but also distasteful, cultural images associated with vaping. "We know tobacco companies are going to come after vape companies one day, and being a mom-and-pop shop isn't going to work," he says. "We need to be able to stand up to them."
While Drake is a big supporter of regulation, he also worries about the social implications. "I have a problem when women are treated like objects, and you see that in the vape industry," he says. "That's why [Drake's Vapes and Vape Goddess] want to empower women. We've realized it isn't a fad and want to elevate."
Nowadays, Drake plays music with his band Polaroid Kiss and strives to improve his business. "That's what the American Dream is for me," he says. "I just want to play music and use my money to help people."