Nearly a century of firsts: The remarkable career of Roy Clay, Sr.

During Black History Month, we look back at the career of the mathematician and entrepreneur, who got his start in tech at HP nearly six decades ago and has since paved the way for African-Americans in Silicon Valley.

By Andrea Bell-Matthews — February 25, 2020

Roy Clay, Sr., lead developer of the first HP minicomputer, first African-American executive at HP, and longtime tech investor and champion, got his first job at age 15 at the local pool hall in his Missouri hometown. 

“They hired me because I could count fast, and I was honest,” says Clay, now 91 years old. “I was also very accurate. There I had to be, because making a mistake meant my life was in danger.”

One of nine children, Clay grew up outside of St. Louis in Kinloch, the oldest African-American community incorporated in Missouri, a state where schools were legally segregated until the 1950s and functionally segregated well into the 1970s. One of Clay’s most vivid memories is from when he was nine years old and he cut across his white neighbor’s lawn to get to church faster. The neighbor came out of the house, pointed a gun at him and told young Clay that if he ever stepped foot on his property again, he would be killed.

Ultimately, it was his fearless drive in the face of racism as well as his talent for mathematics that took him from Kinloch to Saint Louis University, where he was one of the first black men to attend the school. He graduated in 1951 with a BS in Mathematics. After a short stint as a teacher, Clay eventually joined a leading physics research lab operated by the University of California at Berkeley for the US Department of Energy. Here, he wrote software that demonstrated how radiation particles would spread after above-ground nuclear explosions. 

This work brought him to the attention of entrepreneur and engineer Dave Packard. In 1965, Packard was looking for someone to lead a new computer division for Hewlett-Packard, then a young tech company best known for building semiconductors. Packard learned of Clay through a friend who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. 

Clay recalls that he wasn’t all that interested in the job prospect and expected a 30-minute interview at best. Two full days of interviews later, his career in the nascent tech industry was launched.

courtesy of heritage werks / HP archives

Roy Clay, Sr. was the lead developer on the HP 2116A, the company’s first minicomputer.

While at Hewlett-Packard, Clay led the development of the HP 2116A minicomputer, which was the size of a typewriter and only the second 16-bit computer created. It was developed as an instrument controller for HP’s growing family of programmable test and measurement products and marked HP’s first use of integrated circuits in a commercial product. The machine provided HP a strong entry into the subsequent data-processing arena and placed HP in the annals of computing history. 

Clay went on to become the first director of the HP Research and Development Computer Group and the interim general manager of HP’s computer division, where he pushed to sell the machines as point-of-sales systems.

While at HP, he expanded Packard’s employment recruitment from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) by hiring five black engineers from Atlanta’s Morehouse College to join HP’s computer division. He also was integral in helping launch the career of Ken Coleman, a longtime HP executive and Silicon Valley trailblazer who went on to become CEO of ITM Software and a member of the Board of Directors of City National Bank, MIPS Technologies, and United Online. 

But it was Clay’s work outside of HP and his leadership in both the tech and African-American communities that cements the breadth of his impact. As the first African-American to serve on the Palo Alto City Council, as well as vice mayor of the city, Clay worked to provide other African-Americans with the same opportunities he had. 

Here with Roy Clay, Sr., Lesley Slaton Brown, HP's Chief Diversity Officer, who calls him the "consumate Silicon Valley pioneer."


Here with Roy Clay, Sr., Lesley Slaton Brown, HP's Chief Diversity Officer, who calls him the "consumate Silicon Valley pioneer."

After Clay started his own tech company, Rod-L Electronics, a hipot and electrical-safety test equipment manufacturer, he recruited hundreds of African-Americans, including many from East Palo Alto. He believed that aptitude was more important than a degree in engineering. He told Palo Alto Online that he always looked for character and interests over education.

“I looked at the correlation between math and skill games like chess and bridge,” Clay says. “When I hired people I asked if they had hobbies, and if they said they liked chess, I hired them.”

In 2016, John William Templeton, journalist, historian and curator of California African-American Freedom Trail, summarized the profundity of Clay’s impact in testimony to the Menlo Park City Council. “When Roy Clay started Rod-L, he made a point of hiring local workers and training them irrespective of their educational backgrounds so that progress would be equally shared,” he said at the event. “Let’s not bury that legacy.”

Clay also worked to nurture the technology industry overall by identifying and investing in startups. As a consultant for Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, the premiere venture capital firm at the time, he was involved with three investments that went on to attain a combined valuation of $135 billion dollars: Compaq, Intel, and Tandem Computers.

“Roy Clay, Sr. was the consummate Silicon Valley pioneer. His great work, his innovations, and his unrelenting pursuit of knowledge inspires me in my work to ensure that we continue to provide access and opportunities to young people of all races and from all walks of life,” says Lesley Slaton Brown, HP’s chief diversity officer. “The next Roy Clay of tech is somewhere out there, in communities we have barely begun to touch.”

Clay was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame in 2003, where he was honored for his pioneering professional accomplishments. There he joins the man who he credits with his start in the tech industry, David Packard, as well as Bill Hewlett and other tech luminaries.

When asked about his own legacy, Clay responds humbly with a clear and compelling code of conduct. “I always gave respect, even when it wasn’t returned. It’s what my parents taught me.” 

Clay is often called the “the godfather of black Silicon Valley” because of the opportunities he created for other African-Americans in the industry. His biography by the same name will be available in the summer of 2020.

“I think Roy is a great mentor to both old and young in technology and Silicon Valley, across all industries,” says Coleman, who credits Clay with helping him get hired at HP. “He’s viewed as an icon by all of us.”


Read about what inspires HP’s Chief Diversity Officer, Lesley Slaton Brown, and why she wants everyone to feel included at work.