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The Self-Made Man: Clarence Otis, Jr.

I just finished a Buzzfeed article that talks about how the impulse towards misbehavior and risk-taking—i.e. the building blocks of entrepreneurship— is rewarded more often for white males than for women and minorities. Buzzfeed is hardly an authority on social justice, but there’s a fair amount of scholarship backing this article’s claim, and it’s unfortunate that those inequities are still present in 2013. In a perfect world, entrepreneurship would be a meritocracy where hard work and resourcefulness would meet rewards, but we’re still a ways off from that.

That said, it is possible for minorities to succeed, and even thrive, despite cultural and structural setbacks. We’ve already talked about a few Self Made Men of color already, and this week we’ll be taking a look at Clarence Otis Jr., CEO of Darden Restaurants.

Otis was born to a working-class family in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but grew up in the Watts district of Los Angeles, and saw the worst of the civil unrest in that area during the 1960s. He was also, like many of his neighbors harassed by racist cops all the time. Not to belittle what he went through, but as unpleasant as it must have been, it was probably still a huge improvement over Mississippi.

Otis persevered, though, and one of his high school guidance counselors helped him get a scholarship at Williams College, where he studied economics and graduated magna cum laude (and got the hell out of Los Angeles, most importantly). He got his law degree from Stanford soon afterward, and worked in corporate law for a while, before switching over to investment banking. By this point, he was barely 30 years old.

After working on real estate deals in Florida, whose economy was in an upswing at the time, and dabbling in public and government finance, Otis was hired by Darden Restaurants as a treasurer, and came on board just as Darden was prying itself away from General Mills and establishing itself in the “casual dining” market, which was growing rapidly then.

Otis was, and still is, a sharp and adept man who learns and applies new skills quickly, and he rose from treasurer to senior vice president of finance to chief financial officer, before taking over as CEO in 2004. He is one of only 4 current Fortune 500 CEOs of color, and his efforts have turned Darden into one of the largest publicly-traded restaurant companies in the world.

The world we live in is screwed up in ways that can, and should, be changed, and men like Clarence Otis Jr. are a testament to why those efforts are worthwhile. When we give everyone the incentive to risk and achieve, that’s what they’ll do, and their success will better us all.

Otis gave the commencement address at Williams College back in 2009, so I’ll close with that.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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