Roy L. Clay, Sr., a founding member of Hewlett-Packard’s computer division, is sometimes dubbed the “Godfather of black Silicon Valley.” He is known best for his pioneering work at HP in the 1960s, his efforts to expand black representation in technology, and his success identifying and cultivating promising tech startups. In 2003, he was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame in 2003.
Born in 1929, Clay often encountered racism growing up in Kinloch, Missouri, an historically African American community bordering the all-white city of Ferguson. With encouragement from his mother, he flourished in school, earning a scholarship to study math at Saint Louis University. Despite his accomplishments, including becoming one of the university’s first black graduates in 1951, Clay had difficulty securing a technology job because of racial prejudice. Undeterred, Clay taught himself computer coding and moved to Silicon Valley, eventually securing a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1958, where he worked on developing a radiation tracking system that could be used after nuclear test explosions. While at Livermore, Clay met David Packard, who recruited him to lead Hewlett-Packard’s new computer division. At HP, Packard led the team that developed the company’s first mini-computer, the 2116A, in 1966.
Civically engaged, Clay was the first African American to join Palo Alto’s city council and was elected to serve as the city’s vice mayor in 1976. After a 1987 lawsuit forced San Francsico’s Olympic Club to admit women and minority golfers, Clay and a friend became the first black men to play golf on the 130-year old golf course, despite receiving death threats after becoming members of the formerly all-white club. Although racist incidents continued at the club for years, Clay became an active member, joining the board and starting an annual charity golf event at the club that featured, among others, Earl Woods and his son Tiger.
Building a Trusted Future
As the highest-ranking African American at Hewlett-Packard, Clay spearheaded efforts to improve black representation at the company and in Silicon Valley, more generally. At HP, he expanded recruitment at historically black colleges and universities and hired several Morehouse College grads to join his engineering team.
In the 1970s, Clay became focused on developing electrical safety testing equipment that prevented computers from catching fire. His company also developed surge protectors and other tech-related safety devices. As the PC revolution took off, these tools were critical for ensuring consumer trust in the safety of PCs and other home electronics.
To make integration work, people who are involved in the recruitment have to go to the groups they’re recruiting from.