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2007 Horatio Alger Award Recipient

Clarence Otis, Jr.

Retired CEO

Darden Restaurants

“Your neighborhood is where you were raised, but the world is your playing field.”

Clarence Otis' parents were living in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when he was born in 1956. While financial circumstances caused both parents to quit school by the eighth grade, they had been good students. Otis' 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' 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 the 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, caused 34 deaths, and resulted in 4,000 arrests. Some 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the violence, which ended only after 15,000 National Guardsmen put a cordon around south-central Los Angeles.

Otis remembers that turbulent week. "I was young, but my memories are vivid," he recalls. "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."

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In 1963-69, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society initiative programs, such as Teen Post, Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the Watts Towers Arts Center, sprang up in Otis' neighborhood. As teenagers participating in those programs, Otis and his siblings 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 Los Angeles International Airport.

Otis attended Williams College in Massachusetts on a Stephen H. 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' 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 he attended Stanford Law School. He worked one summer for a law firm in Chicago and another summer for a New York law firm. After graduating from law school, he joined a Wall Street firm, but he soon grew tired of all the litigation required of him. He was attracted to public finance, however. After four years as an attorney on Wall Street, he joined Kidder, Peabody & Co., a securities firm.

By 1991, Otis was running the public finance department for what became JP Morgan Chase & Co. Four years later and still in that job, a recruiter for Darden Restaurants, which became the world's largest casual dining restaurant company that operates more than 1,500 Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, The Capital Grille, Eddie V's, and Yard House franchises in the United States and Canada, called to offer him the position of vice president and treasurer. Otis accepted and quickly worked his way up to chief financial officer. Then he served as president of the Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill chain. In 2004, he became CEO of Darden and was promoted to chairman the following year.

Otis says it is crucial to remain open to new ideas and opportunities. "You have to be receptive to those who want to help you," he counsels. "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 redlined 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 effect 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 I want to make and how can I put myself into a situation to make that happen?'" he says. "You need to put yourself into situations where you feel fulfilled."

Otis believes disadvantaged youths must be shown all 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."

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