University of the West Indies (Barbados), B.S., Accounting, 1996
University of Oxford, M.B.A., 1997
University of Oxford, M.Sc., Economics for Development, 1999
Clyde Seepersad grew up on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, the second child of an attorney and schoolteacher. He was one of two students from the Commonwealth Caribbean in 1996 to be awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. Professionally, he has worked at the Finance Ministry in Trinidad and Tobago and was a principal at the Boston Consulting Group. Most recently, he was a senior vice president at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Supplemental Publishers. He just started his own consulting firm in Austin, Texas.
Let’s start with your childhood. Where did you grow up and how big was your family?
I grew up in the southern part of Trinidad and I’m one of four. There is an older brother and a younger brother and a younger sister.
Tell me about your parents. What did they do for a living?
My mom just retired. She was an elementary school teacher. My dad was a lawyer. He’s retired now, too. He practiced criminal law.
How would you describe yourself as a child?
I read a lot. That was common to all of us. We played outdoors a lot. Keep in mind; this was before all the video game stuff. My older brother, younger sister and I were born in consecutive years. Because were really close in age, we were our own built-in playgroup.
How would you describe your parents’ parenting style? Were they tough love or did they coddle you?
I wouldn’t say it was on either extreme. They were very disciplined about school, so making time for homework and making sure it all got done properly, especially with my mom being a teacher. But they are not what I would call strict disciplinarians.
Did they try to pass down any wisdom to you that you still carry with you today?
Focus on what you’re doing and doing it well. Also, have the confidence to make the most of your ability and do what you can do and not be psyched out.
Can you give an example of how they taught you that?
From a personal example, my dad was a pretty successful lawyer, which is difficult to do when you come into the legal fraternity as he did. He was the first person in his family ever, so he had to carve out that role and establish a career and a presence in a field that is very heavily dominated by lots of folks who are second or third generation lawyers in the big family law firms.
My mom didn’t go to college. She went to teacher’s training school and ended her career as a principle of one of the big elementary schools in San Fernando, which is the second biggest town. She got that last promotion a couple of months before she retired. I know she was really, really proud of being able to rise through the ranks. In Trinidad, we still do the British A-Levels, or we did. I think it’s changed now. They encouraged us when we were doing that, to do well and let the results take care of themselves. We all did pretty well. I got a national scholarship at the end of it.
Did anyone besides your parents believe in you? Was there someone else who had a big influence in your life?
My dad’s brother. My uncle. We grew up really close. He literally lived next door. He was a pretty big part growing up, as that extended support network.
In what way was he different from your parents? What kind of influence did he have?
He was able to spend a lot of time with us. My dad was still practicing law and sometimes he’d work late or he’d come home and have to prepare for a case. My uncle was also a teacher, so he’d have a lot of time with us after school. My uncle and aunt didn’t have any kids. With four of us in my house, it was always nice having another adult around to spend time with you.
Did you have any role models growing up? Fictional or real?
No, not really. I don’t feel like I did.
How much did religion influence your upbringing?
On a scale of one to ten with one being low and ten being high, maybe a seven.
What drove you to do more than your average teenager?
Wanting to have more activities than just schoolwork. Part of growing up in southern Trinidad, which used to be fairly rural, you’d come across a really broad, socioeconomic cross-section through the public school system. I got a really good appreciation for how different standards of living people came up under and from looking at classmates, seeing how lucky we were compared to other folks.
So you didn’t go to a private school?
No, we were always in public schools.
What do you think is your most impressive memory while growing up?
I don’t know if I would pick any particular one. There are a couple of times when my dad was working on really high profile murder cases and I saw the amount of preparation that went into it.
You never wanted to be a lawyer yourself?
No, my older brother did. He’s practicing law now, but I pushed back against that. After you spend a lifetime hearing people asking you what you wanted to be growing up, it turns you off ever so slightly.
What kind of teenager were you?
Pretty confident, disciplined. I was focused on my academics.
What activities outside of academics did you focus on?
Different things for school. In the secondary school system in Trinidad, you have a house system where they group the kids in different organizations and I was active in that. And I was active in the Christian student organization. I did some debating. Towards the end of that, I got involved in the local steel band in Siparia which is the town I grew up in. I was involved in more things after I went off to college.
Why do think that is?
More time. Being on my own away from home.
Let’s get back a little more to your childhood. How big was the town where you grew up?
It was pretty small. Ten thousand people maybe.
How would you describe your friends that you had while growing up?
The best friends I had were through post elementary. In Trinidad the system is integrated. It’s not separated into middle and high school. So there’s elementary school and secondary school. My best friends from secondary school were similarly situated-folks with middle and upper middle class professional parents-and similarly focused on doing well academically. The parents were pretty involved.
When you went to college, who suggested that you apply for the Rhodes?
I found out about it partially on my own. There wasn’t a really good system on the Cave Hill campus at the university in the way that I now understand other universities do in working with students to apply. I certainly got some recommendation letters from a couple of my lecturers, but I really found out about it posted on a bulletin board.
Why do you think you had a chance at it?
One of the benefits if I compared my friends who stayed at the university in Trinidad is I think being away from home in a different country. You have a lot more time you’re not spending with your existing circle of friends from high school, or with your family. Because of that, it freed up a lot of my time. I got involved in the Trinidad Students Association and some different student governance things. I got a steel band started on campus. I did a lot of activities and it gave me different looks at how to play leadership roles. That combined with having gotten a First Class degree is what actually opened the door to get interviewed for the Rhodes Scholarship.
While growing up did your family travel a lot?
Not a lot. My dad had traveled pretty extensively before he got married, because he had trained in the U.K. as a lawyer. My mom and dad took a few trips when we were growing up, but they were both public servants, so there weren’t really any trips where the kids went along. There were maybe one or two where I was along, but I wouldn’t say we traveled extensively. My mom and dad did travel together maybe internationally four or five times while I was growing up.
But they didn’t really take the kids on vacations?
They were usually in Trinidad, or we’d go over to Tobago.
Once you got to Oxford, did you travel around a lot?
How far away did you go?
The furthest was the second summer I was there. I did an internship in South Africa for three months, which was really fascinating. Then I traveled a lot around Europe.
When you went to Oxford, did you experience any kind of culture shock?
Not so much. I was pretty well prepared in many ways from what I had learned from my dad who had studied in England many years before and from a couple of the folks I know who had studied abroad, plus, having been living away from home during my undergraduate career. I was back in Trinidad twice a year during that period. I thought it was a pretty easy transition.
Was it unusual for Trinidadian students to study elsewhere?
It was. It’s gotten more prevalent, because there are a lot more government scholarships now. When I went through, the government scholarships were really only for attending the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. So, the vast majority of folks who did really well stayed at the university. In the past five or six years that’s changed a lot. A lot of folks travel. But really the only folks who studied out of the country during the time I was going through university were people whose family had a lot of money.
What do think you’ve taken away from being a Rhodes Scholar?
It’s hard to answer in any succinct way. Being part of a large community of folks who share a lot of common core values. I would draw a line between the experience of being at Oxford as the thing of having impact versus necessarily being part of the community of Rhodes Scholars. It’s a fantastic international environment and it just opens up your eyes a lot and you get a lot more mature in that environment than you might elsewhere.
You spent two years as a Rhodes Scholar and then you stayed on.
The way it typically works, when you go up to Oxford you have two years of funding and then you can apply for a third. So what I did was a one year MBA which I did the first year I got there. And the end of my first year, I applied for the third year because I wanted to apply for a two-year master’s in Development Economics.
In the U.S., being a Rhodes Scholar has a huge reputation.
Yes, even much more so than in the Caribbean. It’s a huge door opener.
I was wondering what was the Caribbean viewpoint of the scholarship.
It’s a pretty thin slice of people who are truly aware of what it is. It tends to be from the better-educated families, people who have lived abroad, studied abroad. It’s not the type of thing people talk about like in high school. It’s not very well known outside of a tiny circle. I figured out who the circle was once I was elected. Actually, Bill Clinton being president raised the profile of it a lot, more than it had been before.
The Rhodes selection committee they say they are looking for students who offer the promise of effective service to the world in decades ahead. Can you address what that means to you?
It changes over time. When I first applied and was elected, I viewed it primarily through a political lens. Over time I’ve realized that’s not the only way to make an impact and particularly for someone like me from the southern Caribbean, or the Caribbean in general, where a lot of the politics are pretty unattractive. What I’m doing now, for instance, working in educational publishing, I find hugely rewarding, because it’s directly plugged into K-12 education and all the challenges of making sure people can live up to their potential.
Expand on that and list three things you like about what you do now.
On the most general level, the school infrastructure in the US is really disparate. The only thing consistent is the content that goes into the schools. The biggest thing for me is having a role in influencing that, because of the vast differences in parental involvement, resources at schools, teacher attitudes and community attitudes. The only real consistent thing you get is what is the content, how accessible is it. How easy is it for kids from a wide variety of backgrounds to be able to assimilate that, given they are going to have really huge differences in their experiences with how they are taught and how they are reinforced at home.
I worked for several years in management consulting when I left Oxford and that was a great experience. You learn a lot about how business works in the US and what it takes to be successful. Coming out of that, I was really trying to find something that I felt I could be really passionate about. Educational publishing really fit the bill, because it’s such a core requirement really to be successful. That’s first and foremost.
There are a couple of other things. There is a piece of the business which I am responsible for. It focuses on adult students, people who have dropped out of high school and getting them back on track and getting their GED, so they have a platform to continue. The dropout rates in the U.S. are just staggering. It’s somewhere between 15% in more affluent districts to north of 40% in cities like Detroit. It’s such a huge, huge waste of talent. You just have all these kids going through and dropping out. And there are lots of different avenues for them to get back on, but they really are chronically under funded. We produce products obviously to help more mature students get back on the academic track, but we’re also pretty active in the lobbying efforts to try to get better funding for adult education, because compared to K-12 funding, it is like one percent. It’s not on the national radar as what people think of the “regular” educational system, but it’s such a huge number people and they are disproportionately disadvantaged communities. They really are the people who need the most help and they are getting the least of it.
So you’re working on the materials that help them in preparation for taking the GED?
Some of it is material to help them understand why it’s important and how it’s possible to get back on that academic track, even though they may have a minimum wage job or be working full-time. A lot of the research shows that even if your income doesn’t go up dramatically, the number one determinant of whether kids finish high school is whether their parents have finished. It’s important not only for them individually, it’s also important for them as heads of households to understand that it’s not just for themselves, but for their kids as well.
A third thing is a piece of what we do which is around intervention, but it’s basically the materials and the approach to how do you get kids back on track when they are more than two years, two grade levels behind where they should be. That is the single hardest category of student to reach. They are also the ones most likely to drop out. Half of the battle is having a teaching quarter that’s really committed. You can teach an average class of 22 students through the K-12 system pretty effectively, but you need teacher-people ratios of more like one to four to really make progress with these kids who have really struggled. You’re basically trying to get them to do multiple years of work in a single year to get caught up. That’s probably the most challenging segment in terms of the reason these kids have fallen behind. It can be anything from lack of interest to some family tragedy to terrible schools they’re in. So, there’s no silver bullet for figuring out how to get them back on track. There is a ton of research going on about the different ways to make that happen. When you see the kind of follow-ups that stick on the kids who have really been helped, it illustrates what a difference it makes if you take these kids and bump them back up, not to where they can go to a fancy college, but to where they are back in the educational mainstream.
So what would you say to someone about young or old about going beyond a mediocre life and living a rich, fulfilling one?
It starts with finding something you’re passionate about. I left consulting after seven years, because I just didn’t have the same passion for it. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s really hard to get into the right gear that gets you involved in pushing your limits. A lot of folks think a job is a job and they can have passion for the things outside of work. To me, that’s really hard to do. You spend so much time at work that if you’re not engaged and enthusiastic about what you’re doing there, it’s hard to maintain that same level of momentum outside of it.
What’s your perspective on failure? How did you handle it when you were younger versus how do you handle it now?
I don’t know if it has changed all that much. One of the things my parents taught me was failure and success are both temporary situations. If things don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. If things go great, it doesn’t mean that they are going to go great forever. Being able to maintain an even keel is really important. There are ups and downs in life. If you don’t handle both well, it’s going to be problematic either way. For me, it’s been trying to be open to understanding what caused it and really honest about self-evaluation. Say, “Okay, that didn’t work out. Let’s look at why and let’s look at what you can do differently next time.”
Has there been a common thread of passion throughout the course of your life?
In a conceptual sense, it’s been for different things.
But there’s always been a passion?
How did you land upon going into educational publishing? Was it a fluke or did you actually do an analysis and say that’s where I’ll go?
It wasn’t a target. It really originated when I decided to leave my private job in consulting. I thought I needed to put out some feelers to see what’s out there. I had done a ton of work in health care, so if you had asked me at the time where I thought I wanted to go, I probably would have said something in the health care-related field because that’s also something I’m very passionate about. Through the network of folks that I know, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with one of the senior people at Harcourt. And I walked away really, really impressed. It really got me to think about what life would be like in this industry, which I hadn’t had a full mental picture of versus health care, which I’m very familiar with and knew exactly what it about it got me out of, be in the morning.
Is there anything else you’d like to bring up that I haven’t touched upon?
It’s really interesting the difference from geographical perspectives on the scholarship and what people are able to do with it. The read – the way it’s positioned – in the Caribbean is just so different from the read in the US. What it allows you to do. In the US, it’s much more of a self-fulfilling prophecy and the kinds of doors that get opened to you.
Do you think you were raised in anyway differently from an American scholar?
I don’t think so. One of the things that struck me when I went to Oxford was how similar everyone was, not in the interpersonal sense or in terms of what they’ve accomplished, but in terms of their energy, their enthusiasm for what they did, their focus on doing what they did well and on self-improvement and having a broader social conscience. One of the things we discovered, at least in my class, was something like fifty percent of the US scholars had one parent who was born outside of the U.S., including my wife. It was a really fascinating data point around the immigrant experience and the U.S. and how much potential it unleashes.
Carolyn Conner Seepersad