One of the most potent metaphors Clinton Etheridge recalls from his Peace Corps experience in West Africa is the “Door of No Return” at the House of Slaves museum on Gorée Island, three miles off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. He describes it as “a coffin-size portal that looks onto the Atlantic Ocean at the closest point on the African continent to the Americas.”
The door represents the passage of captured Africans from their homeland into slavery on American soil. “I knew I came from Africa, but where?” says Etheridge, MBA ’74, who on April 28 received the Tapestry Award at the Stanford GSB Black Business Student Association’s annual conference and gala. “But regardless of where my ancestors came from, Gambia is where my heart is.”
Etheridge served there as a math teacher with the Peace Corps from 1970 to 1972 before enrolling at Stanford GSB and embarking on a career in commercial banking. For the last 15 years of his career, he worked as one of the founders of the California Economic Development Lending Initiative, or CEDLI, where he helped more than 200 entrepreneurs finance and build small and medium-size businesses throughout California.
Linda Parker Pennington, MBA ’83, who helped create the Stanford GSB Black Alumni Network, says the Tapestry Award selection committee considers a nominee’s scope of impact, demonstrated leadership, continued involvement with Stanford, and balanced personal and family life. Pennington, now the “chief people officer” at the Bay Area tech company Hustle, says Etheridge “hit on every single one of our criteria.”
Etheridge says that when he left Gambia in 1972, his friends there lamented that he might never return. And for decades, he didn’t. “That haunted me for the better part of 40 years,” he says. But in 2011, following his wife’s death, he and his children and a granddaughter embarked on a pilgrimage to the country he’d left behind. And in 2013 he returned again to West Africa, this time for nine months as a coach for the Stanford Seed program.
How did your experience in the Peace Corps influence your career?
When you’re in the Peace Corps, you live at the level of the people, and I saw the poverty in Gambia up close and personal. That led me to get interested in African economic development. Could I as an African American do anything about the situation? I concluded that getting an MBA would allow me to apply my background in a wider arena. I’d seen Africa from the bottom up, and I knew that when I went back, I wanted to see it as a businessman.
But then life happened.
After Stanford, I took a job at Chase Manhattan in New York. One of the reasons was that Chase had an Africa presence. I had a wife and one child at that point. Chase sent us to London to the Africa Trade Division for two years. They subsequently offered me an assignment with Chase Nigeria, but I turned it down because my wife was already homesick for the U.S. and pregnant with our second child. I declined the assignment, left the Africa group, and came back to New York with Chase. So yes, my first step was toward Africa, but when I became a husband and a father, I had to take a wider perspective. After Chase, I went to work for Citicorp in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
How did you end up with Stanford Seed?
Only years later, after I’d gone back to Gambia with my family on the 2011 pilgrimage, did the Stanford Seed thing come out of the blue. They were recruiting business coaches to go to Africa, so I applied and was accepted as one of the first five coaches. It was exactly what I wanted and needed at that stage of life.
Was your CEDLI experience helpful as you embarked on that coaching stint?
It was fortuitous. At CEDLI, I’d dealt with small and medium-size businesses. I enjoyed it because I could have more of a personal relationship and be more of a consultant with the business people. That turned out to be the kind of customer I ended up dealing with in the Seed program.
You’ve talked about the importance of humility and curiosity in business. Why are those things important?
It’s especially important in the African context, because it would be easy as a Seed coach to say, “I’m from Stanford and I’m here to help you!” But that could come across as condescending or even neocolonialist. Stanford people may know a lot about Silicon Valley, but we’re just learning about Africa. And when you’re learning about something, you need to have an attitude of humble inquiry. You have to maximize the fact-finding and minimize the assumptions and get to know exactly what you’re dealing with.
What were the most critical needs you found during the nine months you spent coaching entrepreneurs in Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone?
These were small businesses with the potential to scale up and grow through Seed’s multistep transformation process. The first step was to gather data. Who and what is this Seed client? The next step was dream weaving. What does the coaching customer want to be? The third step is distilling the dream. What matters most? And the fourth would be defining transformation for this company. Where does this customer want to go, and how will it get there? Then we’d put together an action plan with goals and objectives. It’s the sort of thing that Fortune 500 companies do but smaller firms normally don’t. If they’re going to scale up and grow, this is the strategic planning process they have to go through.
What do you think makes a good leader?
A good leader needs to be a good talker as well as a good, active listener. Most leaders know the former, but not all leaders know the latter. Good leaders also have a vision. They create a compelling picture of a desired state of affairs which inspires their people to perform.
What specific lessons did you learn at Stanford GSB that you still use today?
Over the years, I discovered that successful companies and leaders engage in an ongoing process of problem solving and decision making — daily, weekly, monthly, and beyond. When I was at Stanford GSB, one of the required courses was Decision Science, which focused on decision tree analysis. In that course, you’d carefully calculate the costs and benefits of each of the decision options. Doing that kind of careful economic analysis, even indirectly, can be very helpful.
Any advice for current and prospective Stanford GSB students about the importance of service?
I would tell them the following: You’re going to get a Stanford MBA and be in a position to make a lot of money over the course of your career. But in the end, you’ll be remembered for your legacy, not for how much money you made. The money, the career, all these things are important. But when you’re gone, what will your legacy be? What did you do to make the world a better place?