May 17, 2022
Florida Icon: Clarence Otis Jr.

Photo: Rafael Tongol

"I always wanted to be involved in the business world — large businesses, not proprietorships. I was more interested in larger businesses because I felt like you can have an impact. I felt that was a place where black people needed to be," says Clarence Otis Jr., 65, the former chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants.

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Florida Icon: Clarence Otis Jr.

Art Levy | 2/9/2022

We moved to California from Mississippi when I was a child, and from when I was in the second grade on, we lived in Watts. It was a unique neighborhood, a lot of substandard housing, a lot of schools that weren’t particularly good and a lot of police brutality. A police-arrest incident triggered the Watts riots in 1965. I was 9 years old by then, so I can recall the neighborhood burning, the looting, all of that.

I always wanted to be involved in the business world — large businesses, not proprietorships. I was more interested in larger businesses because I felt like you can have an impact. I felt that was a place where black people needed to be.

I wouldn’t say that I experienced an overt incident of racism during my career, but I think what you encounter is you are ready for a promotion or an opportunity and you don’t get it. You have to wait longer than ought to be necessary. It shows up in those sorts of insidious ways where it’s not anything anyone can put their finger on, but you know that the wait has been extended, and you don’t know why, but you suspect why.

My wife and I, we are committed Floridians. We have lived here now for 26 years and have seen Central Florida grow incredibly — and grow well. It has been well-run over time, with strong leadership piled on top of strong leadership. That’s exciting to see.

When the Boys and Girls Club experience is delivered well, it really is life-changing for these kids. It helps them make decisions that put them on the right path. Having an adult in their life also helps them avoid the temptations and shortcuts that are out there when you are in a neighborhood that is struggling financially. We thought West Lakes was a great opportunity for a club because of what Lift is doing over there — really thinking about the whole community holistically — so we wanted to be part of that network.

Being a CEO is a responsibility you live with 24/7. You’re always thinking about the company and what you have to do to keep it moving forward. It’s constant. There’s no time off. What most CEOs do is they just incorporate the rest of their life into the job. You weave your job and life together.

As a kid, I was active in sports, and I liked to read. There’s a branch of the L.A. public library in Watts, and I read a lot of those books, maybe even a third or half of all the books in that library. So, I got a good education and understanding of other places from just reading. I read a lot about sports, a lot of biographies, historical biographies, and pretty much all of the black novelists, the Richard Wrights, the Ralph Ellisons of the world.

Florida is a state that’s run by the political minority. The districts and boundaries in the state Legislature have been gerrymandered to the point where the big population centers aren’t able to exercise power consistent with how big a percentage of the state they are. That’s a problem. You’ve got a non-urban minority establishing state policy in an urban state in an urbanizing world.

My dad got a job working for the city of L.A. as a custodian, a janitor. He had a serious work ethic. He believed in working. There was a 10-year period there from about 1965 to 1975 when he worked two full-time jobs at once. The off days didn’t overlap, so there were four days a week when he worked eight hours and three days a week when he worked 16.

Voter suppression is a foundational thing that needs to be addressed. Voter suppression is what ended Reconstruction and started this long period of unequal access to resources that led us to where we are today.

We’ve been collecting art for a long time, since probably about the mid-1980s. We have quite a few pieces by Sam Gilliam. Those are favorites for sure. Some of the earliest pieces we have are by an artist named William H. Johnson. He is one of the most influential black artists in the country’s history. A lot of these artists grew up in Florida. Hughie Lee-Smith was born here.

All the way through school, I was able to connect with all the different groups — the kids who really focused and did well in school, the athletes and the kids who ultimately wound up in gangs. I went to school and grew up with Wayne Day. He was the founder of the Crips. It’s a little contrary to popular depiction, but kids joined gangs because they wanted to be part of that team, and those that didn’t, didn’t. I was a student and an athlete. I liked school, and I applied myself. I wasn’t pressured to join a gang.

Probably not enough credit has been given to how much progress has been made because I think the focus has been too narrow. There’s a lot of focus on the number of black CEOs in the Fortune 500, S&P 500. That’s a very easy number to get. People default to it. It is a number that’s lower than it ought to be. But if you open the aperture and you look, for example, at the Russell 2000, you’ve got more black CEOs than you’ve probably had in any point in time — still not enough, but more.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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