Uploaded: Friday, January 30, 2009, 11:02 AM
Updated: Monday, February 2, 2009, 9:44 AM
Unsung pioneers of high tech
African-American technologists lauded in Palo Alto with month-long exhibit; reception at 5 p.m. Monday
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|Imagine if the first images of African-Americans that flashed in Palo Altans' minds were of venture capitalists and high-tech geniuses.
That view would be accurate — and long overdue, according to historian and journalist John William Templeton.
A new exhibition, "Soul of Technology: 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology," aims to dispel the notion that blacks don't have the chops to make it in high tech, Templeton said. Some of those being honored worked in the industry when Brown vs. the Board of Education decreed black students had the right to attend public schools.
The month-long exhibit at Palo Alto City Hall will open Monday at 5 p.m. with a public reception honoring three Palo Alto African-American technology pioneers: Dr. Frank S. Greene Jr., a 70-year-old venture capitalist at New Vista Capital and early developer of computer systems at Fairchild Semiconductor R&D Labs; Roy L. Clay Sr., 79, a founding member of Hewlett-Packard Computer Division and CEO of ROD-L Electronics, Inc., an electrical-safety testing manufacturer; and the late Ron Jones, inventor of large-format printing and a computer device that turns Nintendo's Game Boy into a digital audio and video player.
Greene and Clay, both inductees into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame, will attend the event.
"I think it will be an eye-opener for the community. ... People don't know that high tech is the largest profession of African-Americans," Templeton said.
He started the exhibitions in 1999, when Greene and Clay asked him to develop a presentation for San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation on 20 top African-American technologists. Each year since, he has presented the exhibition — with up to 50 panels featuring the images and achievements of the top black technologists — around the country.
Templeton decided to bring the show to Palo Alto because of Police Chief Lynne Johnson's remarks last year about having her officers "make consensual contact" with blacks during the city's crime wave, he said.
"It's a great exhibit for raising the visibility of African-Americans and to raise the visibility for young people," he said, of his desire to create positive role models for youth.
"In 1987, when I was editor of the San Jose Business Journal, at that time I had never met a black corporate VP," he said.
Templeton later learned at a black-executives forum that four out of 12 technologists in Silicon Valley— more than 200 — were black, and 90 percent of African-American executives in the country lived in Silicon Valley, he said.
The more than 400,000 African-Americans employed in the U.S. information-technology field alone disprove "the notion that you can't find blacks to work in technology," he said.
Roy Clay Sr.: The 'godfather of black Silicon Valley'
When Roy Clay Sr. started programming computers in the Bay Area in 1958, Bill Gates was 3 years old. Clay pioneered programming at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Control Data Corporation and Hewlett-Packard Company in the 1950s and '60s.
In the 1970s, he funded Intel, Compaq and Tandem Computers as a computer consultant for prospective investments at venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. He served as Palo Alto's first black City Councilman and vice-mayor. And he started his own firm, ROD-L Electronics, which set the standard for dielectric withstand testers — electronic-safety equipment that tests nearly every electrical device sold in the country, according to Templeton.
Clay grew up in Kinloch, Mo., a segregated town of 5,000, in a home without indoor plumbing. At the time, blacks were not free to attend integrated schools, and most colleges still barred their doors to people of color.
In elementary school, he displayed an early proficiency and love for mathematics.
To earn money, he cleaned a local pool hall. He got good at shooting pool, recalled Clay, a trim, 5-foot-5-inch man with a welcoming smile.
"I came home from school, cleaned up, and had enough to support myself from the winnings by the end of the week. Because I count well, at 18 I managed the craps games at the back of the pool hall," he said.
He wanted to play professional baseball, but a football injury sidelined his career, he said.
In 1947, he was admitted to St. Louis University — one of the first blacks to attend the school, he said.
"I learned to appreciate what difficulties kids have being bused to school," said Clay, an affable man.
When Clay graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1951, he applied for a job at McDonnell Aircraft and was invited to an interview.
But once he got there and the interviewers saw he was black, "I was told, 'Sorry, Mr. Clay, we have no jobs for professional Negroes,'" he said.
He worked as a teacher, until McDonnell eventually did hire him in 1956, where he and everyone else learned computer programming, he said.
He moved to the Bay Area in 1958, working for Lawrence Radiation Laboratory as lead programmer for the fastest computer then built, writing programs to simulate radiation and explosive activities of atomic bombs. He stayed until 1962.
He then worked for Control Data Corp., developing computer languages, and in 1965 applied for a position at Hewlett-Packard Company when they advertised a start-up computer division.
He was offered the job as director, but hesitated when he didn't see anyone on staff who understood what they were doing, he said. But the salary offer kept getting bumped up and eventually he accepted.
Company co-founder David Packard himself was a pioneer in promoting diversity. He had helped implement affirmative action programs in the U.S. military as deputy secretary of defense, Clay said.
When Packard returned to HP, he began to aggressively recruit from historically black colleges and universities, according to Templeton's book, "Our Roots Run Deep, The Black Experience in California 1950-2000," Vol. 3.
Clay expanded on that policy, hiring five black engineers and recruiting from Morehouse College. He became known as the "godfather of black Silicon Valley" for opening doors to many African-Americans in the industry, according to Templeton.
Yet society was not as welcoming of blacks as HP. There were still restaurants where Clay could not dine and places where he could not live, he recalled. He lived in the only San Jose apartment building that accepted blacks, along with almost every other African-American engineer in the county.
Throughout his career, Clay has sought to bring prosperity to East Palo Alto. He asked Packard to build a plant in East Palo Alto in the 1960s and '70s, though the company deemed the then-unincorporated area economically and politically unstable.
He's also recruited African-Americans from East Palo Alto to work for him, believing that aptitude is more important than a degree in electrical engineering, he said. Clay started EPA Electronics in the 1970s to hire East Palo Alto youth in the industry; and he has hired 50 East Palo Alto residents for Menlo Park-based ROD-L Electronics through the nonprofit OICW (now JobTrain), despite the residents' educational disadvantages.
Clay said he looks for characteristics that will ensure success in programming, recalling an early connection he made from his craps-game days: "Craps was similar to developing software. I looked at the correlation between math and skill games like chess and bridge. When I hired people at HP, I asked if they had hobbies, and if they said they liked chess, I hired them," he said.
But despite all of his success, Clay remains humbled by the early lessons he learned from his parents about leadership.
"I will have been successful if I can do for others what my parents did for me," he said.
Frank S. Greene: An icon of leadership
If Frank S. Greene could identify one reason why businesses fail, it would come down to leadership.
Greene, a Silicon Valley pioneer, developed high-speed semiconductor computer-memory systems at Fairchild Semiconductor R&D Labs in the 1960s, started two technology companies, Technology Development Corp. and ZeroOne Systems, and is a longtime venture capitalist who invests in minority technology companies.
"During the peak of the (dot-com) boom, we saw 500 applications a day," he said of start-ups looking for funding. "The percent of success stories is small. Ninety percent of start-ups fail in the first three years. It's a horrible waste of capital. The largest single factor between success and failure of these companies comes down to leadership," Greene said.
Through his GO-Positive Foundation's leadership-training program for youth in East Menlo Park, Greene found that of 25 "very smart" boys, only one-third saw themselves as leaders. But practicing leadership skills helped the boys to find the potential within, he said.
His model of leadership centered on "bringing leadership skills to the conscious level. They have the skills but can't see how to use the skills," he said.
Greene pointed to the election of President Barack Obama as how far leadership can take someone.
"If there was an award for Entrepreneur of the Century, he would get that award," said Greene, a quiet, tall, lean and distinguished-looking man who has taught at some of the country's distinguished universities, including Stanford, Santa Clara University, Howard University and his alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Greene grew up in the highly segregated St. Louis of the 1950s, where "making it through life was a civil-rights activity in itself," he said.
When Washington University opened up to people of color, the top 10 to 15 percent of students from his high school received scholarships. He was in the second class of black students at the university, he said.
"We went to sit-ins to see if we could integrate some places around the school. We would sit there until the cops closed the place."
One time, Greene and his friends went to a pizza joint, where the owners were willing to serve them.
"The problem was that between us we didn't have enough money for one order, so from that day, I've always said, 'You have to be prepared for opportunity when it arrives. ... You've got to be prepared for success.' We weren't expecting to succeed, so we didn't take any money," he said.
Greene described the start of his tech career as being at the right place at the right time.
"When Sputnik launched, we felt we'd be attacked from space. There was a big call to teach science, and I got a job to teach physical science," he said.
Greene was also the first black cadet to make it through the four-year ROTC Air Force program in 1961. He became an Air Force captain, where he learned leadership skills.
Armed with a master's degree from Purdue University, he started as a test engineer at Fairchild in California, then moved into research and development, starting in chip design.
He developed the fastest semiconductors in the mid-1960s, "all of 256 bits," which was used in the space program, he said.
Greene's interests later turned to business and venture capital — again breaking ground in his field.
When Greene wanted to fund minority businesses in the late 1980s, banks were hesitant, he said. But the banks were under pressure because of the Community Reinvestment Act, so he was able to convince some large banks to pony up the funds. He has funded 26 companies, he said.
"Success in life is not about 'me' but about what you can do to help others," he said.
Greene said he learned a valuable lesson back in his days as a student in St. Louis. When he was a member of the only black tennis team in St. Louis, his coach believed the young men would get creamed by the more advantaged white players.
"When we got out on the court to play, we broke their confidence down. You have to have a strategy for how to win in this competitive world, to find the weak spots. It's not the physical part; it's the mental part," he said.
Ron Jones: A genius ahead of his time
When Clay and Greene talk about the late Ron L. Jones, the third pioneer to be honored on Monday, one thing comes to their minds: He was a man ahead of his time.
Jones, who died at 48 from gastric cancer in 2004, founded Palo Alto-based Colossal Graphics in the mid-1980s and invented large-format printing for computers that enabled an image to be printed in one pass rather than being run through four times to add all of the colored inks. In 1999, he invented the SongPro, a device that turns Nintendo's Game Boy into an MP3 player.
Jones grew up in Pacific Grove, studied engineering at Monterey Peninsula College and San Jose State before dropping out to work for Hewlett-Packard Company, IBM and Data General Corp.
Jones sued Hewlett-Packard for breach of contract and driving him out of the market. HP allegedly violated a cross-licensing agreement for his bulk-ink device. HP released its own bulk-ink system that competed with Jones' and, the suit claimed, undercut Jones' business relationships with clients.
A Santa Clara County jury returned a unanimous verdict in 1999 in Jones' favor and he was awarded $6.63 million. But HP appealed the decision and an appeals judge slashed the award to $300,000.
"Ron convinced me to believe that he was a digital genius. He put together product after product. ... He had a belief system that anything was possible," recalled longtime friend Jarvis Lessane, who worked with Jones at HP and collaborated on his other ventures, including Colossal Graphics.
Jones was a man who worked for peace and unity among peoples, he said.
"He was always driven to do more. He started getting sick, but he was a true fighter. He loved and supported the people around him. I miss him," Lessane said by phone from North Carolina.
"He should have prevailed," Clay said, of Jones' misfortunes.
Jones' experience was often frustrated by the disparity between his brilliant ideas and the business policies of the companies for which he worked, Greene said.
Developing an idea is not enough, Clay said. The frustration comes from having to educate technology companies about why the invention is needed.
In the case of the SongPro, Jones was sued by Nintendo.
The units were originally called Song Boy, and Nintendo filed suit in 2000, claiming the name was too similar to the company's "Game Boy" and that no one but Nintendo can make cartridges for the Game Boy, according to published reports.
But the experience taught Jones numerous lessons about the importance of relationships as well as good ideas, according to an article in the UDaily, a publication of the University of Delaware.
"Business is politics and politics is business," Jones told students during a 2003 lecture at the University of Delaware's Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.
He conducted a marketing survey of the number of African-Americans who purchase Nintendo products and with the assistance of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition promotes opportunities for minorities, Nintendo agreed to license Jones to manufacture the product under the name SongPro.
"Different people have different skill sets. It is important to meet and know as many people as you can," he told the students.
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Posted by carolyn brown digovich, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jan 31, 2009 at 10:59 am
Every student should see this exhibit.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Feb 2, 2009 at 4:12 am
Walter_E_Wallis is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
The biggest sin of racism and sexism is that it denies society the benefit of the best efforts of everyone.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Feb 2, 2009 at 6:29 pm
Walter_E_Wallis is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
I believe a Black man named McCoy invented the drip oiler and, to differentiate it from the many imitations marketed it as "The Real McCoy" hence the phrase.
Posted by Dale Austin Jenkins, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jun 20, 2010 at 8:52 pm
Our family, with the Harrisons, Gees, Idas, Nakatas), along with the other families on and around Lawrence Lane, were among the first Non-Caucasion (except for the Stannards, Duvenecks, Lelers, and others great folks) to break the color line in 1952-53 Palo Alto. Check the archives of the PA Times for a Saturday article with us kids on a rocking horse, and you will add to the knowledge base.