Roy Clay Sr. is an IT legend. He started programming at McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis in 1956, just one year after the company told him there were no jobs for “professional Negroes.” By 1966, Clay was a leader of the team that designed Hewlett-Packard’s first computer system. Today, Clay is CEO of Rod-L Electronics, the electrical product testing equipment manufacturing company he founded in 1975. His company, based in Menlo Park, Calif., is known for providing jobs to local youth.
Clay’s success story needs to reach young African-Americans across the nation, says John William Templeton, president of San Francisco-based Electron Access (publisher of the Black Student’s Internet Guide). Templeton organized a Jan. 24 ceremony at Howard University’s School of Business that honored the 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology, including Clay; Richard Parsons, slated to be CEO of AOL Time Warner starting in May; FCC Chairman Michael Powell; and Lotus Development CEO Al Zollar. (For the full list of honorees, visit www.blackmoney.com.)
African-American employment in IT-related fields stands at 500,000, Templeton says. He hopes the honorees’ stories will encourage that number to double within three years. “IT has become the largest profession among African-Americans, and yet the perception among people in our own community is that we’re not in this field,” he says. “We want to change that perspective. It doesn’t make sense for 80 percent of these kids to compete for 1,200 athletic jobs.”
Another honoree, Eric Kelly, 43, wasn’t even born when Clay began his IT career. Now the president of Milpitas, Calif.-based Maxtor Corp.’s network systems group, he makes time in his schedule to urge groups of inner-city high school students to develop IT skills. “My plea to them is to understand the sciences, understand the technology,” he says. “I tell them, ’No matter what industry you go into, you still need to understand IT now and to use it.’ You can’t say ’I don’t understand’ when you’re in a digital economy.”