Eric Clement left a high-flying private equity career to return home and run the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Strategic Investments Group. Now, instead of making big deals around Africa and the Middle East, he’s helping the Big Apple get back on its feet by financing its recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. Clement tells CSQ how he got the job and why he left the gilded private equity life behind.
Were you always interested in finance and markets as a kid? Were you one of those high schoolers looking at stock charts?
No! I was always interested in making money, but more importantly, I’ve always been curious with why things are the way they are.
But to tell you the truth, when I was younger, I wanted to play baseball. I got a full scholarship to college and I played pro baseball for a little bit. After baseball is when I really started to get interested in financial markets and how things work—how everything is tied together globally.
Once you were done with baseball, you worked at some of the most respected firms in America, including Citigroup and JP Morgan. What was that like for you?
I was at JP Morgan and Citigroup during the last financial crisis. I worked on the special situations desk at Citigroup. That was when all the banks were getting hit hard, and their stock prices tanked. New rules were instituted because of the type of business the banks were doing, like the Volcker Rule. I was on one of the proprietary trading desks for Citigroup and that entire desk is now disbanded.
During that time, I learned a lot at work, but what really sticks with me from that time was just how an economic recession can impact people’s lives. At the height of the recession, I would see 20 to 40 people let go from the trading floor daily. I would think to myself “Are these people going to be OK?” I will never forget the clapping and cheers for all of the people that were tapped on the shoulder during those times and let go from Citi.
You left Wall Street and got an MBA from Oxford. How was that experience?
I didn’t get my master’s when a lot of my work colleagues got theirs (in their 20s). When I was younger, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to be, so it didn’t make sense to waste money on a degree. I was 36 years old when I decided to go to business school, and I knew at the time that after working in the U.S. for so long, I wanted to work overseas. I figured I might as well try to get into one of the best schools outside of the U.S., and fortunately it worked out.
How did you get into private equity?
I got lucky is the short answer. It happened around the same time I was accepted to business school. Some very good friends of mine had started a firm—an infrastructure development company. They were engineers and politicians and had connections in Africa. They said, “Hey, we want to build infrastructure and we don’t know anything about finance but you do, so do you want to join us?” Building infrastructure in remote areas of the globe was appealing since I had never worked in emerging or frontier markets. What I didn’t realize was how much this experience would have an impact on me. Being able to play a small part in transforming people’s lives, allowing them to be able to work more efficiently and feed their families, gave me a sense of purpose and has always stayed with me.
Since I was already going to be spending a lot of time in the United Kingdom (which is where their office was going to be), I said “Why not? I’ll take a flier. I’m in school anyway.” At the time, the opportunity was very appealing, and given it was a startup, I was able to attend school while helping to build the company. I would also travel to Africa when needed. The company started with just the four of us, working day and night with the hopes we would land an infrastructure construction project in a part of the world none of us had ever been. It was exciting.
We built the company to 250 employees and completed projects across the continent. We traveled to places like South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya, and built infrastructure that made it easier for people to live. In many of these places, the roads were not usable. For miles, people would carry their goods to local markets on their heads. Building roads finally gave locals the option to drive (or ride motorcycles) to the market. This not only improved the quality of their lives, it also gave them an opportunity to make multiple trips to the market and sell more goods. It was a humbling experience and it felt good to be making a difference.
Eventually, the firm was acquired, which was great. From there, I started a private equity firm at age 38 with some other partners, and we kept on doing business in emerging markets. It was really lucky, to tell you the truth.
You could have landed a cushier gig after leaving your last private equity position. Why did you take this job?
I moved back permanently in 2017 because I got married and my wife and I decided to build a life in New York.
She had actually recommended EDC—I didn’t even know what the EDC was. My wife is the global head of real estate for a big law firm, so she knows the real estate industry well. She said, “Look, you’ve been away for a long time. If you get a job at EDC—especially this one, running this group—you’re going to be in the middle of everything that happens in New York City.” Which at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate, but coming up on three years, that’s exactly what’s happened.
I went from being a “Wall Street guy” to now being part of the EDC senior staff, working on Hudson Yards, LifeSci NYC, and Cyber NYC—major initiatives to diversify the city’s economy and create good-paying jobs for New Yorkers, and new ways to finance education so more people could have access to it.
New York City has been hit hard in 2020. You’re in a position to make a big impact. What are some things you’re doing, or what people with power in politics or finance can do, to help the city recover?
Within NYCEDC, were working on tackling large-scale problems like the building and maintaining of our infrastructure, creating more affordable housing, investing in good-paying jobs, finding alternative ways to pay for education, in addition to everything the city is doing with respect to COVID-19. This includes sourcing and standing up local manufacturing lines to produce PPE and other medical equipment, and capitalizing a multitude of investment vehicles so that small businesses, which are part of the heart and soul of New York City, can access capital.
Moreover, the Strategic Investments Group is right in the middle of it. We’re using our abilities to financially structure transactions that make sense to the private sector, while simultaneously meeting the city’s policy goals.
As an example, at NYCEDC, when COVID-19 hit, we literally stopped all investment activity and we started redirecting all our resources and talent to support in the city’s response. This included activating our sites to support the city’s immediate response, manufacturing face shields and gowns, developing a “bridge” ventilator in less than a month, and building a local supply chain for tests.
In our efforts around gowns, there were 2,200 jobs preserved or created with almost 60 percent of gown manufacturers qualified to register as MWBEs [Minority and Woman Business Enterprises]. At the same time, we were also supporting small businesses and preparing for the long-term recovery.
We stood up grant and loan vehicles where in some cases we gave money away to eligible businesses because we knew economic activity In NYC had come to a halt. Throughout this crisis, it has been amazing to see the innovation and resilience of New York City.