What happens when people of color get access to technology and information? They change the world, despite the obstacles. Just ask Roy Clay Sr.
Roy Clay Sr. moved from his home of Kinloch, MO, a black community neighboring Ferguson, to Silicon Valley early in his career to make his way among the booming industry and endless sunshine of Northern California. He couldn’t have imagined that over the next 3 decades he would become known as the “Black Godfather of Silicon Valley” due to his groundbreaking business deals in the technology industry developing in the Peninsula area. Now, years later, he's giving back by lending his name and experience to the protest movement that made his hometown famous.
“My life started in Ferguson, MO during a time period where the black population in the town was merely 50 people compared to today where there are over 17,000 African Americans residing in the township,” Clay shared as he recalled his journey experiencing oppression, racism, to launching his technology career and founding a computer division in Hewlett-Packard.
“Back then Ferguson was a White township and Blacks were not permitted to walk through neighborhoods after a certain time, say Clay Sr. remembering his youth. But despite his success and age, this tech giant can relate to the youth today.
"I can close my eyes and remember every detail of that day the Ferguson police harassed me because of my race. That one incident stuck with me for the rest of my life," says Clay Sr. remembering the time he was racially profiled in this small city in Missouri. "It was a hot summer day in August, I stopped to purchase a soft drink, Coca-Cola, from a local Ferguson grocery store. I was not permitted to consume the drink inside the store, so I sat on the curb outside after working outside for some hours. A Ferguson police car pulled up to where I was sitting and two officers stepped out of the vehicle to ask me what was I doing in Ferguson. I told them I stopped to get a cold beverage on my way from work.”
“I was handcuffed that day,” 85-year-old Clay Sr. shared as he recalled his experience with the Ferguson police as a teenager. “I was handcuffed, placed in the back seat, and was driven near a body of water. After driving for approximately a mile from the local grocery store, I was taken out of the car, handcuffs removed, and was told: ‘Nigger, don’t let me catch you in Ferguson again.” That was 1942. Inspired by his mother's wisdom, "to never let racism stop you from being successful", Clay Sr. pushed on despite the ordeal.
Clay Sr. never worked as a gardener again in Ferguson. He did however work extremely hard in his high school and received a scholarship to attend St. Louis University (SLU). Clay Sr. was amongst the first African-Americans to attend the university where he majored in Mathematics. After graduation, Clay Sr. experienced a lot of difficulties during his job search and recalled a potential employer explaining to him, "Mr. Clay, we are very sorry but we have no jobs for professional Negros."
Relentlessly Roy Clay Sr. continued to pioneer his way through his career becoming a teacher and soon after learned about computers and technology. He started his professional career at McDonnell Aircraft and journeyed to California where he managed a research and development unit for Hewlett-Packard and founded Intel, Compaq and Tandem.
But the racism didn't stop because he was in Silicon Valley.
"Many of my coworkers were white and they did not understand what it meant to be Black. They didn't not understand my journey," Clay Sr. shared recalling his early experiences in the tech industry.
“For so many years I would try to tell people where I was from and the experiences I went through and they would always look at me and shrug their shoulders as if Ferguson, MO was in another world. But now they know where I am from.”
After learning about Ferguson police harassing and murdering Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO on August 9th, 2014, Clay Sr. recalled being a teenager and how he could have been Mike Brown. He wanted to share his story to the world and have his message be, “Not to look at young Black men as a threat in our community but look at them as innovators. Mike Brown could have been me.”
Bobé and others at Hands Up United asked Clay Sr. for permission to name the first tech program under the Tech Impact umbrella after him. Without hesitation Roy Clay Sr. was honored to have his name part of the Ferguson movement and asked if he could leave future participants of the program with some words:
“Always be willing to learn and to help others learn something in the world because everyone needs help and everyone can give help. And that has been my teachings since my early childhood. I did not get here on my own, my mother and my community helped made me. They cared about my success, and at the age of 85, I care about your success. I want to see you grow and help you along the way in any way I can."