His mother raised him to never let racism be an excuse for failure. So despite being told in the 1950s by employers in the tech industry that there were no jobs for professional Negroes, Roy Clay Sr. never gave up and eventually became not only a forefather to the modern day personal computer, but also the man who advised Tom Perkins of Kleiner Perkins to invest in Robert Noyce’s Intel computer chip.
“The microprocessor was the greatest invention of the 20th Century,” says 86-year-old Clay, founder of Rod-L Electronics. “Kleiner Perkins is the venture capital company that started Silicon Valley.”
Because of his perseverance in the face of discrimination, his astounding intellect and creative drive, Black Enterprise is honored to present Roy Clay Sr. with the Trailblazer’s Award at our inaugural TECHCONNEXT Summit in Santa Clara, California, on Oct. 12–13, 2015.
Had Clay not followed his mother’s sound advice, he would likely have remained a teacher after earning a degree in Mathematics in 1951. “Teachers should get paid more,” says Clay. “I liked teaching as much as developing software.”
Nevertheless, he was intrigued by computer science, a new discipline that began in 1956, which generally recruited mathematicians. Despite denial after denial on the basis of his race, he eventually landed a position working on IBM computers at McDonnell Aircraft Corp. (later McDonnell Douglas), a leading aircraft manufacturer. At the time, computers were the size of several refrigerators packed together in a space the size of a large warehouse.
In 1958, he programmed computers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, operated by U.C. Berkley where he wrote code to demonstrate how radiation particles would spread after nuclear explosions; a likely consideration during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. By 1965, Clay took the position as the lead developer at Hewlett-Packard for the HP 2116A minicomputer, the first sold by HP, and only the second 16-bit computer to ever enter the world market. He went on to become the first director of the HP R&D Computer Group.
While at HP, he hired the first graduates of Stanford’s computer science department, and recruited Kenneth L. Coleman, now chairman of data analytics firm Saama Technologies and a special advisor at Andreessen Horowitz; among other notable blacks in tech who he helped to launch successful careers.
Later his advice in identifying and nurturing prospective startups for Tom Perkins led to investments in Tandem Computers, Compaq Computers, and Intel, three companies that eventually attained combined valuations in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Upon leaving HP, the husband and father of three launched Rod-L Electronics, a manufacturer of the HiPot electric safety tester, which is used by electronics companies like HP and General Electric to detect faulty wiring in every device from dishwashers to computers before they are sold.
Given his impressive background, one might think that Clay was a fan of Silicon Valley’s meritocracy ideal as it pertains to hiring, but instead he calls it “benign neglect” a term President Richard Nixon used to describe a type of discreet discrimination.
“I am a founder of Silicon Valley. I established the HP personal computer when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were 10 years old,” says Clay, who suffered two strokes in the last 15 years. “I don’t accept the fact that blacks are not able to do the work. We’ve already done it. [Silicon Valley’s meritocracy] is beyond discrimination.”
Clay’s advice to rising computer scientists hoping to make a name for themselves in the Valley: “Everything in the world is related to everything else in the world. You will never know how things work unless you observe life around you. Never give up and always pursue what you think you can do.”
Attend the Black Enterprise TechConneXt Summit at the Santa Clara, California, Hyatt Regency from Oct. 12–13. It will present a unique, unparalleled opportunity to make connections among the best and brightest of the African American tech community—from Silicon Valley and beyond. At TechConneXt you will learn the secrets to Navigating Silicon Valley Community, Discover Opportunities with Tech Companies, Find Funding Sources for your business and Connect with established tech leaders. If you are apart of the tech community, or one of its many stakeholders, you simply cannot miss it! Register today at www.blackenterprise.com/techconnext.