2007 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Your neighborhood is where you were raised, but the world is your playing field."
Clarence Otis's parents were living in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when he was born in 1956. While financial circumstances caused both of them to quit school by the eighth grade, they had been good students. Otis's father worked in a cotton mill, but knew he needed to find a more secure job when mill positions started moving offshore. The family moved to California in 1960, settling in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1962.
Otis's father worked as a custodian for the city and had a second full-time custodial job for private companies. His mother stayed home to take care of their four children. "My parents were young and accessible," says Otis. "Our house was the gathering place of our friends and neighbors. I never saw my parents as strict, but they had definite expectations about school and grades. My father believed in achievement and he expected you to be at the top of whatever you attempted. He also believed in living up to your word. My mother was into making sure we got along well with others. She was always gracious and welcoming. People in our community looked to her for guidance, advice, and counsel."
When Otis was nine, a traffic citation incited a riot in Watts that lasted six days. To end the violence, 15,000 National Guardsmen were called in to put a cordon around South Central Los Angeles. In the end, the riots had caused 34 deaths and 4,000 arrests, and 600 buildings had been either damaged or destroyed. Otis remembers that turbulent week. "I was young, but my memories are vivid," he says. "I especially remember the presence of the military walking around in their fatigues with bayonets on their rifles. They set up campsites throughout our area. I saw a lot of looting and fires. I knew we were considered to be at a disadvantage to live in Watts, but my family never focused on the negative side of the coin. You cannot be a prisoner of the circumstances into which you were born. You have to realize that the entire world is your playing field, not just your neighborhood. Unless the odds are 100 percent negative, then someone is making it. Even if it's 70 percent against you, there are 30 percent who have done well. You have to assume that is you. I was taught to focus on the right side of the probability."
President Johnson's Great Society initiative, which took place between 1963 and 1969, started programs such as Teen Post, Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the Watts Towers Arts Center. Otis and his siblings spent a great deal of time during their teen years participating in these programs. They were exposed to nationally renowned artists who gave free lessons as well as actors who helped with stage productions. Otis became a counselor for the Neighborhood Youth Corps, helping with recreational programs for children. He later worked in a restaurant at the Los Angeles Airport.
Otis attended Williams College in Massachusetts on a Tyng scholarship, which at the time was awarded to only four promising students a year. It covered not only four years of undergraduate studies, but also three years of graduate work. Otis's younger sister also attended Williams College on a scholarship and together they formed an African-American repertoire theater company. He joined the Black Student Union and served as treasurer of the student body during his junior year. He was also elected Phi Beta Kappa. Otis graduated magna cum laude in 1977 with a degree in economics, and then attended Stanford Law School. He worked one summer for a law firm in Chicago and another summer for a firm in New York City. After graduation, he joined a Wall Street firm, but soon grew tired of all the litigation required of him. He was attracted to public finance, however, and after four years as an attorney on Wall Street, he joined Kidder, Peabody & Co., an investment banking firm.
By 1991, Otis was running the public finance department for what is now JP Morgan Chase. While in that position, he received a call from a recruiter for Darden Restaurants. After interviewing with them, he liked what he saw and realized he was eager to pursue a new opportunity. Otis joined Darden in 1995 as a vice president and treasurer of the company. He quickly worked his way up to chief financial officer, and then served as president of the Smokey Bones Barbeque & Grill chain. In 2004, he became CEO of Darden Restaurants, Inc., the largest casual dining restaurant company in the world, and was named the company's chairman in 2005. Based in Orlando, Florida, it operates more than 1,400 restaurants in the United States and Canada.
When reviewing his business success, Otis is quick to point out the importance of being open to new ideas and opportunities. "You have to be receptive to those who want to help you," he says. "I was receptive to those who came to make a positive difference in Watts, and I participated in the programs they offered. When Felix Grossman wanted me to see Williams College, I didn't dismiss him. When I was a beginning lawyer, my boss red lined a lot of what I wrote, and rather than get defensive, I was receptive to his input. It's really about focusing on the advantages of a situation rather than the disadvantages. I believe that when you give in to the negative side, you miss opportunities."
For Otis, success is making a meaningful difference and a positive impact in the lives of others. "You fulfill your own potential doing that, which is ultimately the goal," he says. When addressing young people, he points out the importance of finding a core purpose. "Ask yourself, 'What am I trying to accomplish in life?' What is the difference you want to make and how can you put yourself into a situation to make that happen? You need to put yourself into situations where you feel fulfilled."
Otis believes that much of the challenge for disadvantaged youth is getting them to see the opportunities that are out there. "That's why college is so important," he says. "It gives students exposure and perspective. Once they begin to see the opportunities, they can prepare themselves to take advantage of them. Education provides the foundation that introduces young people in tough situations to the opportunities this country provides."