Pioneers in Tech: Roy L. Clay, the black godfather of Silicon Valley
The technology chapter of any Black history textbook would have to start with the life story of this week’s “Pioneers in Tech”, Roy L. Clay. After, he has more than earned the moniker the “Black Godfather of Silicon Valley.”
Born in 1929 outside of St. Louis, Clay’s childhood was marked by the realities of segregation and racism. A simple soda break during a summer job turned into a brush with the Ferguson police, simply because he was Black. When he took a shortcut across a neighbor’s lawn, the neighbor pointed a gun at him and told him never to return.
But racism did not deter Clay from pursuing his goals—or his love of mathematics. He became one of the first Black men to attend Saint Louis University. After graduating in 1951 with a degree in math and spending a couple of years teaching, Clay went to work in a physics research lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where he wrote software that demonstrated the spread of radiation.
This work caught the eye of Dave Packard, who was seeking leadership for the newly formed computer division of Hewlett-Packard. At HP, Clay led development of the typewriter-size HP 2116A minicomputer, the company’s first use of integrated circuits in a commercial device. Clay also worked passionately on his other passion: expanding opportunities for other Black men. He hired five engineers from Morehouse College, opening HP’s recruitment to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
After leaving HP in the early 1970s, Clay truly became the “Black Godfather of Silicon Valley,” starting his own company—Rod-L Electronics—that employed hundreds of residents of East Palo Alto, a predominantly Black community. He became the first non-white member of the Palo Alto City Council and eventually served as vice mayor. He also became an influential venture capitalist.
The full story of Clay’s contributions to Black advancement in the tech industry can be found in Unstoppable: The Unlikely Story of a Silicon Valley Godfather, a 2022 biography published by Clay’s sons and author M.H. Jackson.
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