Recent studies show that only approximately 1% of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are black. Many people blame the U.S. education system and its inadequate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curricula. Others find fault with a deficiency of basic information to help students enter these fields.
The 1% figure, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t black entrepreneurs and pioneers who have made noteworthy breakthroughs in the tech world.
Below, we’ve listed 20 notable black leaders and innovators in STEM fields. Some are well-known, some should be better known, and others might still be considered up-and-coming in their industries. Nevertheless, they have all contributed to the STEM fields in novel ways.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list by any means — there are many other notable (and often unsung) black innovators in tech. After reading, feel free to add to the list in the comments.
1. Frank Greene
Considered one of the first black technologists, Frank Greene developed high-speed computer systems in the 1960s. He also founded the software companies Technology Development Corp. and ZeroOne Systems, Inc. Greene died in 2009.
2. Roy Clay Sr.
Roy Clay is a Silicon Valley pioneer, having worked as the research and development director of Hewlett-Packard (HP)’s computer division, working on the design and construction of the company’s first computers in the 1960s. He later founded Rod-L Electronics, which tests for safety in electrical equipment.
3. Mark Dean
Mark Dean helped develop the once-ubiquitous IBM PC, holding three of IBM’s nine original patents. In 1999, he sought to create a voice-activated tablet, and wrote in 2011 that he uses a tablet as his primary computer. Dean is now the CTO for IBM Middle East and Africa.
4. Guion Bluford Jr. and 5. Mae Jemison
Guion Bluford Jr. was the first black man and Mae Jemison the first black woman to travel in space (in 1983 and 1992, respectively). Bluford is an engineer and was a colonel in the United States Air Force before participating in four space shuttle flights. Jemison, a physician by trade, has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates.
6. James E. West
James West invented the first practical electret microphone, which uses a charged material instead of needing a polarizing power supply. It is commonly used in cellphones, cameras and digital recorders around the world. West won the Benjamin Franklin Medal in electrical engineering from the Franklin Institute in 2010.
7. Philip Emeagwali
During his doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan in the 1980s, Philip Emeagwali researched how to simulate the detection of oil reservoirs through the use of computers. Originally from Nigeria, he knew more about oil drilling than many of his contemporaries, and he used more than 65,000 microprocessors instead of the proposed eight supercomputers, breaking computation speed records.
8. Kennedy Reed
Kennedy Reed is a theoretical physicist at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2009.
9. Al Zollar
Al Zollar worked for IBM for over 30 years before retiring, most recently working as general manager of IBM Tivoli Software, where he was in charge of strategy and profit and loss management. He has a degree in applied mathematics from the University of California at San Diego, where he was recently named one of 50 distinguished alumni.
10. John Thompson
When John Thompson was chairman and CEO of computer security software company Symantec, he was the only African American to hold such a position at a major tech company. He is now the CEO of Virtual Instruments and is the only black man on Microsoft‘s board of directors.
11. Emmit J. McHenry
Emmitt McHenry co-founded 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 IBM and NASA, among other places.
12. Gerald Lawson
13. Wanda Austin
Wanda Austin is the president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit that assists and contributes to national space programs. When she was senior vice president of the Engineering and Technology Group in the early 2000s, she led a staff of 1,000 engineers and scientists.
14. Lester Lyles
Lester Lyles is the chair of the National Academies Committee on the rationale and goals of the U.S. civil space program. He holds degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering. He formerly served as the Air Force’s vice chief of staff and as the commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He was also appointed to President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
15. Dixie Garr
Dixie Garr served as Cisco Systems’ vice president of customer success engineering for seven years. She drove change throughout the company’s engineering processes and business practices to better help the needs of customers around the world. She has been awarded several honors, including the 1997 Black Engineer of the Year Award.
16. Lori Perine
Lori Perine is currently the managing principle at InterpreTech, where she once worked as president and CEO. Companies consult InterpreTech in economic innovation, science, energy and technology. Perine also served as deputy to the associate director of the White House Office of Science and Tech Policy until 2001.
17. Herman Chinery-Hesse
Herman Chinery-Hesse was born in Ireland, studied in the United States and worked in England, but decided to return to his roots in Ghana to start a software company called SOFTtribe. He has been called “Africa’s father of technology” and is often likened to Bill Gates.
18. Chad Womack
Chad Womack is the director of STEM education initiatives and the fellowship program at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). He is also a biotechnology scientist and he serves on the board of directors of the National Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Association.
19. Robin Petgrave
Robin Petgrave is the founder and executive director of Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, where at-risk youths are introduced to aviation, math and science. His students have broken several aviation world records.
20. Kimberly Bryant
In 2011, Kimberly Bryant launched Black Girls Code, an organization devoted to teaching young girls of color computer coding and programming languages, such as Scratch and Ruby on Rails. Through classes and programs, Bryant and the rest of the Black Girls Code team hope to grow the number of black women in technology and give underprivileged girls better opportunities.