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  • Writer's pictureNth Generation

Roy Clay, Sr. – The Godfather of Silicon Valley

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

COURTESY OF HERITAGE WERKS / HP ARCHIVES | Roy Clay, Sr. was the lead developer on the HP 2116A, the company’s first minicomputer.

Nth Generation would like you to join us in celebrating our values surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. Black History Month is a meaningful component of that spectrum. We would like to shine a spotlight on one of many African Americans who have shaped modern technology: Roy Clay Sr.

Roy Clay, Sr., one of the founders of the computer division at Hewlett-Packard (HP), was an integral part of HP becoming a leader in the world of technology and paved the way for African Americans in the tech industry.

Roy was born and raised in Kinloch, Missouri in 1929 and grew up during the height of segregation. He faced racism throughout his childhood. He recalled one hot summer day when he bought a soda in the neighboring town of Ferguson and sat on the curb to drink it because he was not allowed to drink inside the store. A police officer came, questioned Roy, handcuffed him, and put him in the back of the police car. Thankfully, he was let go and warned to never set foot in Ferguson again. He walked back home to Kinloch and told his mother what happened. Roy said she responded, “You will experience racism for the rest of your life, but don’t ever let that be a reason why you don’t succeed.”

He did well in school and was awarded a scholarship to St. Louis University. He was the first African American to graduate from there in 1951 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. After he graduated, he continued to face racism while searching for a job. He was denied a job at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation due to the color of his skin.

In 1958, Roy moved to Berkeley, California and joined a research lab at UC Berkeley where he wrote software for the U.S. Department of Energy. His work caught the attention of David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, who was looking to hire someone to head a new computer division for HP – a young tech company known for building semiconductors at the time. Roy interviewed for the position and was hired, launching his illustrious career in tech.

Roy moved to Palo Alto, California and joined HP in 1965. While there, Roy wrote software for the HP 2116A minicomputer – the first computer to be sold by HP and the second ever 16-bit computer – and managed the team that launched it. Roy then became the first director of the HP Research and Development Computer Group and managed HP’s computer division, promoting selling computers as point-of-sales (POS) systems. While at HP, Roy developed several initiatives to improve African American representation in Silicon Valley.

Roy left HP in 1971 to become a consultant for Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, the premiere venture capital firm at the time. He was involved with three investments that eventually valued at $135 billion dollars in total: Intel, Compaq, and Tandem Computers. In 1977, he started ROD-L Electronics, a leader in testing electrical products for safety. He recruited hundreds of African Americans, stating that he believed aptitude was more important than an engineering degree. Roy hired local workers and trained them regardless of their education.

COURTESY OF HP | Roy Clay, Sr. & Lesley Slaton Brown, HP's Chief Diversity Officer

Outside of his notable career, Roy’s involvement in African American communities has been monumental. He became the first African American to serve on the Palo Alto City Council in 1973, and to become a member of the Olympic Club in 1988. In 1999, he founded the Virginia Clay / Unity Care Annual Golf Classic to honor his wife's memory and to help young minorities succeed. In 2003, Roy was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame, joining Bill Hewlett & David Packard of HP and Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel.

“I always gave respect, even when it wasn’t returned. It’s what my parents taught me.”

– Roy Clay, Sr.

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