Silicon Valley's Invisible Blacks

CNN's Black in America 4 ignores the history of African Americans in technology. Here's what it missed.

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Frank Greene; Shellye Archambeau; Paul Judge

The following article from The Root's archives remains relevant long after the airing of CNN's Black in America 4 program. Enjoy!

Soledad O'Brien's latest chapter in her Black in America series has caused a huge uproar even before the episode airs on Nov. 13. In her continuing exploration of the nooks and crannies of African-American life, O'Brien has taken on Silicon Valley, which sees itself as a model of meritocracy.

The episode, "The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley," follows a group of African-American entrepreneurs who join an "incubator" called NewMe, led by BlackWeb 2.0 founder Angela Benton (a Root 100 2010 honoree), and spend nine weeks living in a house in Silicon Valley, preparing to present their Internet startups to potential investors. (It will air Sunday, November 13 at 8 p.m. ET, and The Root will live stream a panel discussion about it hosted by Mario Armstrong, "Innovation Nation: Startup Success,"  from 9-10 p.m. ET). In the process, O'Brien asks why so few black entrepreneurs have emerged from America's tech bastion.

The controversy has largely been triggered by comments in the documentary by Michael Arrington, founder of the influential startup showcase TechCrunch, who declares that he doesn't know a single black entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and adds that if he found one, he'd give him a platform without regard to the merits of his company. Previews of his comments set off a spirited -- and often racially tinged -- debate about whether Silicon Valley is as colorblind as it likes to think it is.

The rarity of blacks in current tech startups is indisputable, but both Arrington and O'Brien's documentary leave you with the inaccurate impression that there are no black tech entrepreneurs at all in the Valley. In fact, while the total number of African Americans working at tech companies is small today, blacks have had a long and consistent presence in Silicon Valley, even playing key roles at critical times. Today a number of companies founded by blacks are thriving, despite Arrington's ignorance.

The elder statesman of black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley is Roy Clay Sr., chairman of Rod-L, a company that makes electronic testing equipment. Clay came to the Valley in the 1950s with a degree in mathematics from St. Louis University. He led the team at Hewlett-Packard that created the company's first computer in 1966.

Clay was later a consultant for the premier venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins as it considered investments in startup companies such as Tandem Computers, Compaq and Intel Corp. He has been a City Council member and vice mayor of Palo Alto, Calif. Clay was inducted into Silicon Valley's Engineering Hall of Fame in 2003.

One of the Valley's most famous startups was Silicon Graphics International, a company whose powerful workstations made possible the spectacular special effects that have become standard in today's action films. SGI's advantage was a specialized graphics chip largely based on the Stanford University doctoral thesis of Marc Hannah, an African American, and other students of engineering professor James Clark. Clark and his students left Stanford to found SGI, where Hannah became chief scientist. He now works in real estate development.

Frank Greene developed high-speed computer systems in the 1960s and ran ZeroOne, a provider of large systems and software. Greene founded Technology Development Corp. in 1971 and took it public in 1985. He was the founder of New Vista Capital, which managed some $50 million in investments. Greene died in 2009.

Gerald Lawson created the first game cartridge for Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1970s, making it possible for game consoles to handle many different games. Lawson died in April at age 70 shortly after being honored by the International Game Developers Association.