Black innovators have played a significant role in shaping the world’s technology development. Our ability to use everyday essentials like caller ID, traffic lights, and even the computer (or device) you’re reading this on, is due to the inventions and creative minds of Black leaders.
We hear a lot about gender gaps in the business and tech industries (as we should), but something that still needs more airtime is the racial inequality within the technology space.
Many tech companies publicize diversity standards and ambitions, but the numbers tell another story. In 2014, only 2.4% of Google’s employees were Black. 7 years later in 2021, that number just barely doubled to 4.6%.
On average, African Americans make up 7% of the industry (only 3% being accounted for by Black women).
Here are some Black tech innovators that have paved the way to changing the industry and world with their work.
Alan Emtage – Search Engines
Alan Emtage is a name you should hear more often. His mind and work transformed our everyday lives, and our ability to consume information.
This is because Emtage invented the search engine.
Without him and his developments, we may not have the same Google or other search engines people use to travel the worldwide web.
He was a graduate student and systems administrator in the computer division at McGill University and created the Archie search engine, a program that automated a time-consuming process of finding specific pieces of software. Essentially creating the world’s first search engine.
Emtage didn’t patent his invention.
Kimberly Bryant – Coding
Kimberly Bryant is an electrical engineer, whose early work with Genentech and Pfizer has a new importance today. Pfizer has risen to front-page news due to their development of one of the most popular COVID-19 vaccines.
The work that put her on the map is her company Black Girls Code. When remembering the discrimination against boys at a computer camp she attended – she knew she had to make a change in the industry.
Black Girls Code is aimed specifically at empowering young girls of color to enter the tech industry with exposure, skills, and confidence to compete against the historically white male-dominated STEM fields.
Today, BGC aims “to grow to train 1 million girls by 2050 and become the ‘girl scouts’ of technology.”
Otis Boykin – Electronic Wiring
Otis F. Boykin’s work on improved electrical resistors enabled the continuous operation of a wide range of now-ubiquitous electronic devices. Variations of his resistor models are still used in televisions, computers, and radios around the world. His work, however, was most notable for enabling control functions for the first successful implantable pacemaker.
From 1964 to 1982, Boykin worked as a consultant in the United States and in Paris as a result of his accomplishments. Meanwhile, he continued to work on resistors until his death. In 1965, he invented an electrical capacitor, and in 1967, he invented an electrical resistance capacitor, as well as a number of electrical resistance elements. He is also credited with developing a number of consumer innovations, such as a burglar-proof cash register and a chemical air filter.
James E. West – Microphone
Electret microphones may not sound all that riveting, but the technology is used in nearly 90% of all microphones produced annually.
West patented this product in 1962 and today his technology can be found everywhere from phones to hearing aids to baby monitors, as well as a wide array of other devices.
West’s mother was one of the “Hidden Figures” human computers who worked at NASA Langley Research Center.
Clarence Ellis – Education Leader
Ellis was the first Black male to earn a Ph.D. in computer science in 1969.
Ellis is an American programmer and inventor- born to a poor family in Chicago. He went on to study computer science in college, discovering his passion for it, and invented Officetalk. Ellis was also Emeritus Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Originally a nurse, Brown and her husband invented a piece of technology that went on to protect millions: the home security system.
When working as a nurse, Brown had an irregular schedule. Living in Queens in the ’60s, she had to take her security into her own hands.
By combining peepholes, an adjustable camera, home televisions, and a microphone system, she was able to communicate with whoever was on the other side of the door.
In 1966, she filed a patent for her CCTV system invention.
Angela Benton – Amplify Black Voices
You may have seen Benton’s name in Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology OR Business Insiders’ 25 Most Influential African-Americans in Technology.
Her work has supported growing diversity in tech. Black Web 2.0 is a website that launched in 2007 and was designed to be a platform for Black professionals to share their voices. In 2011, she launched the NewMe accelerator which went on to help hundreds of minority-led tech companies raise over $47 million in venture capital funding.
Lisa Gelobter – Chief Digital Service Officer
Lisa Gelobter is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and technology executive. Lisa worked on several pioneering internet technologies and she was credited with developing the animation used to create GIFs.
She served as the Chief Digital Service Officer for President Barack Obama’s administration in his Department of Education.
Frank Greene – Technology Development Corp
Frank Greene was an African-American scientist and venture capitalist born in Washington, D.C., in 1938.
He was celebrated for boosting the representation of African Americans within the technology sector through his work with two giants: The Technology Development Corporation (most famous for working on the space shuttle program) and ZeroOne Systems (a supercomputing systems house).
But these are not his most noteworthy accomplishments; that designation would go to Greene’s scholarship program. Frank also founded New Vista Capital, a venture capital firm that aimed to help underrepresented groups and communities gather funding for startups or emerging businesses.
His relentless commitment to this cause resulted in induction into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall Of Fame as well as recognition from Palo Alto City Hall as one of their Most Important African Americans In Technology.
Herman Chinery-Hesse – Software Development
Herman was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1963 and has come to be known as the Bill Gates of Africa.
Herman Chinery-Hesse is a Ghanaian technology entrepreneur and the founder of SOFTtribe, which has pioneered many groundbreaking projects including Point of Sale Systems and ERP systems. He also co-founded Hei Julor!!! A low-cost, mobile-based community security alert system for Africa.
Celebrating Black Innovation
Of course, this is only a small selection of Black innovators who have made a significant contribution to the tech industry.
Not only have these tech superstars changed the way we use technology today, but they’ve helped increase diversity and inclusivity within the tech industry, paving the way for the next generation of Black innovators.