It’s Black History Month, the time of year when often-forgotten African American historical figures are given the props they deserve.
This year, Americans are living in a “culture wars” climate that has already seen the removal of books on Black life and history from schools around the country, including Civil Rights books, books on the history of American slavery and books by authors such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. So it feels especially important to highlight the contributions of Black people to our everyday lives, from Lewis Latimer’s carbon lightbulb filament to Garrett Morgan’s automated traffic signal.
When it comes to tech, Black people have long been underrepresented, the result of inequity in education and access. Despite that, African Americans have made impactful contributions in tech throughout history — and that impact is only growing. Here is a list of some of technology’s most important Black technologists, from the 1960s to today.
Roy L. Clay, Sr.
Born in Missouri in 1929, Roy L. Clay, Sr., sometimes known as the “godfather of black Silicon Valley,” was the founder of ROD-L Electronics, Inc. But he is best known for his work at Hewlett Packard in the 1960s, when he led the team that developed HP’s first computer, the 2116A, in 1966. Clay was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council Hall of Fame in 2003.
Dr. Frank S. Greene, Jr.
Dr. Frank S. Green, Jr. was another Silicon Valley pioneer for Black engineers in the 1960s. Born in DC in 1938, he developed high-speed semiconductor computer-memory systems for Fairchild Semiconductor’s R&D Labs and holds the patent for Fairchild’s innovative integrated circuit. He founded his third firm, NewVista Capital, in 1986, with a focus on launching startups founded by underrepresented entrepreneurs. Greene was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council Hall of Fame in 2001.
One of the fathers of modern gaming, Jerry Lawson created one of the industry’s biggest innovations in 1976: the first home console system with interchangeable gaming cartridges. The Fairchild Channel F console itself didn’t last long, but the tech was the forerunner for the Atari 2600 in 1977. The rest is history. Lawson’s story is told in the first episode of the Netflix docuseries “High Score.”
In the early ’80s, Tennessee-born Mark Dean was chief engineer on the team that designed the original IBM PC, and he holds three of the company’s nine patents. Other technologies he helped develop include the color PC monitor and the gigahertz chip. Dean was the first African American to become an IBM fellow in 1996 and was and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1996.
Born in Arkansas in 1943, Emmitt McHenry cofounded Network Solutions, Inc., one of the early leading internet domain services providers. In 1995, he founded NetCom Solutions International, a telecommunications and engineering company that has won awards from the likes of IBM and NASA. McHenry is a venture partner with Next Sector Capital.
Janet Emerson Bashen
Born in Alabama in 1957, Janet Emerson Bashen was the first African American woman to hold a software patent, for LinkLine. The software could securely store and share information about the cases she worked on as founder of the Bashen Corporation, a private consulting group that investigates Equal Employment Opportunity complaints under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Black and Jewish GenXer Lisa Gelobter served as the chief digital service officer for the US Department of Education during the Obama Administration, but her biggest claim to fame is probably that she developed the animation tech used to make gifs. She has also done pioneering work in the development of Shockwave, Hulu, Brightcove, Joost and The FeedRoom. In 2016, Gelobter founded tEQuitable, a platform that addresses workplace discrimination.
Philadelphia tech leader Sylvester Mobley founded Coded by Kids in 2013 to help underrepresented children prepare for leadership roles in tech and innovation spaces. A single, small class at a community center has evolved into regional programming that reaches hundreds of kids a year. Mobley is also the founder and managing director of the early-stage venture capital firm, startup incubator and accelerator Plain Sight Capital.
Microsoft executive Christopher Young is a leader at the tech giant as EVP of business development, strategy and ventures. From 2014 until 2020, he was the CEO of McAfee, leading the cybersecurity company to become a standalone spinoff from Intel.
Arlan Hamilton built the venture capital fund Backstage Capital while homeless from the ground up in 2015. The firm’s focus is to minimize funding disparities in tech by investing in “underestimated founders” who are people of color, women and/or LGBTQ. In 2018, Hamilton cofounded Backstage Studio, launching accelerator programs for underestimated founders.
Stacy Brown-Philpot, from the West Side of Detroit, became one of the few Silicon Valley executives who is also a Black woman when she was named the CEO of TaskRabbit in 2016. She led the company, which sold to Ikea in 2017, until August 2020 after helping it expand significantly around the globe. Brown-Philpot serves on the board of directors for HP, Black Girls Code and the Detroit-based digital marketplace StockX.
Los Angeles-based Delane Parnell is an esports innovator whose work at Inkwell Venture Capital made him the youngest Black venture capitalist in the US. He founded PlayVS, a high school esports platform, in 2017. In 2018, the company raised $15 million Series A led by NEA — the industry’s largest raise for a Black founder.
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