Roy L Clay Sr.Photographed by: Onyx Truth
Silicon Valley is the hub of technological innovation, home to hundreds of companies. Roy L. Clay Sr., also known as The Godfather of Silicon Valley, is responsible for its success. He was a founding member of Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) first computer division, which put Silicon Valley on the map. This, and his many other technological ventures, played a crucial role in establishing several enterprises to increase the representation of African Americans in the city of technology. Yet his legacy is not known to the general public. One of his sons, Rodney Clay, stated that “if you ask a kid now, who created Silicon Valley? They’ll probably say Mark Zuckerberg. They might even go back and say…Bill Gates. But they can’t go much farther than that.”
Despite facing the barriers of segregation, Clay’s determination and hard work earned him a scholarship to study mathematics at Saint Louis University. While he had a passion for baseball, he chose to focus on his academic goals and was among the first African Americans to graduate from SLU.
After spending some time working as a teacher, Clay eventually landed an interview for McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. But despite his qualifications, he was told, “I’m very sorry, we don’t hire professional Negroes.” While he would eventually reapply and land a job with the corporation, it was at his next job and his move to Palo Alto, California, in 1962, that marked the beginning of a journey that would lead him to greatness.
In 1958, Clay ended up working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he would write software for the U.S. Department of Energy. This software would display how radiation particles would spread after a nuclear explosion. As word spread about the work he was doing at the lab, it would eventually be caught by David Packard, who would personally recruit Clay to Hewlett-Packard (HP).
Joining HP in 1965 was another step toward his goal. With his unwavering determination and leadership skills, Clay helped launch and lead the computer science division in 1965, leaving a lasting impact on the world of technology. The creation of the HP 2116A minicomputer launched the company into the world of computers. This launch was viewed as a negative by HP’s co-founder Bill Hewlett, who was paraphrased by Clay’s son Rodney, as saying “you’ve [Clay] done us a disservice. You’ve gotten us into the computer industry. I [Hewlett] want you to get us out of it.”
Additionally, Clay held the highest-ranking position of any African-American member or staff at HP until he left in 1971 to pursue his dream of starting a consulting business. His expertise and dedication helped Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm, identify investments that became some of the biggest names in tech, such as Tandem Computers. Yet Clay was not finished when it came to how many accomplishments one could achieve.
He would make another mark on history when he became the first African American to be elected to Palo Alto City Council in 1973. A white friend of Clay had been the one to encourage him into running for local politics. This venture would eventually lead to him becoming vice mayor for two years (1976-77).
In 1977, Clay started ROD-L Electronics. One of his sons, Rodney, explained, “Safety testing is what ROD Electronics is about. We started selling our equipment to companies manufacturing all kinds of electrical things, from printers to copy machines and computers. Our goal was to sell to every company that was building electrical products so that they would use our tester to verify the safety of their test. They could put an underwriter laboratory sticker on their product, put it in a box, and know they’ll be okay. And that’s what Rod Electronics is all about, so we built the equipment that allowed other manufacturers to do that test.”
It is an undeniable fact that Clay had to confront racism even after becoming the first African-American member of the Olympic Club of San Francisco in 1989. It is worth noting that this club has a long history, established in 1860, but until 1989, no minorities or women were permitted to become members.
Rodney Clay said how the members felt after his father became a member, “The Olympic Club used to have a policy of not allowing black people to become members. The club’s bylaws stated that only white Anglo-Saxon males could join. However, my father, the first black member, broke this barrier and paved the way for people of all ethnicities to join the club. He even went on to become a board member and eventually the club’s president, which was a remarkable feat considering the racism and anger he faced from some members who had been there for generations. Some people were so upset by his inclusion that they took his picture off the wall. A white friend of his said to Roy, ‘I’m taking all the pictures off the wall. He went and tore all the pictures off the wall.’”
Clay, a prominent figure in the technology industry, was recognized by the African American Museum and Library at Oakland in 2002 as one of the most significant African-Americans working in technology. Furthermore, ROD-L Electronics, a company in San Mateo County, was honored with the Dads Count Family Friendly Employer Award. Clay’s contributions to the technology industry were also acknowledged in 2003 when he was inducted into the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame. His story serves as an inspiration to all those who face obstacles in achieving their dreams.
This led to the writing and publication of his autobiography “Unstoppable: The Unlikely Story of a Silicon Valley Godfather.” Virginia Clay, the late wife of Mr. Clay had been a huge inspiration to him throughout his life and career. It was her idea for him to write his life story as to not only preserve his legacy, but to also inspire others in pursuing their dreams. His son Rodney said that “…she [Virginia] was the one who said, ‘Roy, you’ve got to write your story as an inspiration to minority kids coming up.’” He goes on to say that “…I think it was more my mom saying…’I want people to know about you…’ My mother was very proud of him. And she was a big reason….for him being who he was…”
In terms of how Clay felt about his book, one of his other sons, Roy Jr., stated that “…he [Roy Sr.] wanted to get some degree of recognition, but really just to get a lot of different things out there. So recognition, being able to help the community, a lot of a lot of reasons all combined together.” He furthers this by saying that “… that was his kind of mantra. And that’s primarily why he wanted to write the book was to be inspirational.” His son Chris, added to this by saying “… whether it be in technology, whether it be in other disciplines, whatever it is…don’t let anything slow you down.”
While Roy Clay Sr. may not be able to do press for his book and life story as a whole, his sons do that job for him. Chris Clay was able to talk at Stanford last year to minority engineering students. He also stated that he had the ability to do another talk with 80 engineers from the company he currently works at. He believes that the book “…has become a big vessel for us to go out and do these sorts of talks and really start to spread the message to other groups. Without a book, then we’re just kind of talking and especially without him there, we don’t quite have the reach and quite have the credibility, but with the book in hand…we are getting a lot and a lot of attention, and a lot of momentum, a lot of visibility to the audience that we want to reach a global audience of all makes increase in interest.”
Chris C. goes on to say that “…we are absolutely getting a lot of reach into…primarily underrepresented people…looking to achieve whatever they want to be, in engineering or other fields of study.” Roy Jr. follows this sentiment when he brings up his father’s start in technology, “…he dealt with a lot of things when he was growing up…he had to deal with a lot, a lot of racism, a lot of…rejection from mainstream society. And in the process of climbing up out of all of that, I think he started to realize that, really, there’s a lot of pathways that need to be created…for the black community to be able to…advance itself in any way.”
After decades in the making, the book was released in July of 2022. His sons are currently in the process of finishing a children’s version which is slated for release in 2024.