For much of his career, Wilbert Murdock, a New York Polytechnic-educated electrical engineer turned entrepreneur, has been a vocal advocate for greater diversity within the tech ranks, waging a courageous and sometimes lonely campaign to elevate the profile and prospects of African Americans within the electronics engineering and business communities. As a mentor of African American students and founder of a nonprofit organization to fund and build a $20 million Technology Center for Innovation in New York City, the inventor and businessman has given more than lip service to the issue. EE Times vice president and editorial director Richard Wallace recently traveled with Murdock through neighborhoods in the New York boroughs of Queens and the Bronx (where Murdock's sports technology company, Internet Golf Multimedia Inc., is headquartered) to get his take on why this core segment of the U.S. population remains underrepresented in the tech sector, what the potential impact is for U.S. technological leadership and security, and how society and the industry can address the problem.
EE Times: Why are there so few African Americans in the U.S. electronics and tech sectors?
Wilbert Murdock: African Americans have made exceptional contributions to our industry. Yet to my knowledge, no African American technologist has ever been featured on 60 Minutes, 20/20 or Dateline, or has appeared on the front cover of Time, Newsweek, Business Week or Fortune. With the exception of [coverage by] the New York Times, New York Daily News, EE Times and a few others, a whole industry of hardworking, dedicated African American technologists has been rendered totally invisible.
The inference is that our work does not count or matter in high tech. There are absolutely no visible role models that an African American in our industry can look up to. This is something that I have witnessed for 34 years.
EET: What was your experience entering the industry as a young African American from the Bronx?
Murdock: First, I had a great love for America, which provided a kid like me, who grew up in the ghetto, the opportunity to learn and prosper. I had certain goals, and I knew from the start it would not be an easy road, especially as an African American. [But] my mother and father ran a business and were entrepreneurs, and there was a lot of media talk growing up about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the early pioneers of the personal computer industry. In fact, my father had worked at IBM many years ago. So technology was not really foreign to me.
Upon my graduation from college, my goals were simple: create world-class sports technologies, become one of the world's leading experts in sports technology, become a nationwide role model for African American youth, build technology centers of innovation and explore new fields in science and technology where I might be able to make a contribution.
EET: What were your greatest challenges starting out?
Murdock: The central issue always came back to money we're talking about millions of dollars and having good legal counsel that was trustworthy. Most of my capital came from family and friends, with one instruction: to go out and do something great.
Over the years, there have been verbal offers from potential investors interested in making capital investments in my company, if my partners and I would be willing to give up control of the company. But [the overtures] never went beyond pleasant conversations. At the same time, having partners and friends like [IGM colleagues] Prof. Philip A. Williams and "whiz kid" Mohamed Aboshihata have helped make the dream real, along with a supportive board of directors that has included [former IEEE president] Joel Snyder and [NBA Hall of Famer] Earl (The Pearl) Monroe.
EET: Do you think your experience would have been different if you had lived in or near a technology mecca like Silicon Valley?
Murdock: I have thought about this for a long time. My biggest problem, even today, is getting in the front door.
Investors do business based on several criteria. One of those is, What do they have in common with the individual sitting across from them at the table? Some white males feel more comfortable doing business with someone who looks like them. There is always an exception to this rule, but that person has to possess great vision to look beyond skin color.
The members of the investment community all know each other, whether it's West Coast or East Coast. It's a brotherhood. Usually, investments in companies come from personal referrals.
Unfortunately, I'm not in that personal-referral loop. High-tech companies operate a little differently, but I have learned that unless the CEO knows about you and takes a personal interest in what you have to offer in terms of your technology especially if it helps his company to make a lot more money generally nothing will happen with a deal. Real dollars will not be invested.
Maybe if Silicon Valley angel investors had been open-minded to funding African American-founded tech companies, we would have filed hundreds of patents by now instead of the several dozen currently pending in our portfolio.
EET: How important have mentors been to you in your career growth, and who were some of yours?
Murdock: When I was 13, my mentor was Bert Jordan [now deceased], a family friend who gave me hands-on training, without telling me it was engineering. Years later I learned that Mr. Jordan had been a professor of electrical engineering at the RCA Institute. Without him, I would have never even considered becoming an engineer.
EET: What sort of things, as a mentor, did he expose you to?
Murdock: They ran the gamut from audiovisual technology to electrical engineering to different environments that we weren't accustomed to being in, such as museums. Just teaching us about the way the outside world operates, from an engineering point of view, had an important influence on my growth and development. He was like a second father to me. He was someone who cared.
EET: What do you see and hear from the kids in today's classrooms that's different from your experience when it comes to high technology?
Murdock: I grew up in the Baruch Housing Projects in New York City and moved to the Bronx nearly 16 years ago. Sixteen years ago, if you asked the average African American youth, "What do you what to be when you grow up?" it was to be a sports star or a music legend. Ask the same question today, and African American youth now [still] say, sports star, music star, but they also tell me about their desire to study computers. This provides a great opportunity for all the leaders of high tech to get African American youth involved in our industry at an early age. It can only benefit the industry.
EET: What special talents and skills can young African Americans bring to the culture of technology innovation?
Murdock: Many African American youth have a great affinity to learn, grow and prosper if given the opportunity. Right now, the opportunity is not fully there in high tech. Look at the contributions of African Americans in sports, music and general business. Now transpose this same mind-set of innovative thinking that they use in sports and in music and in general business to high tech with visible role models, visible mentors, innovative environments to learn and master so many diverse technologies, and investment dollars from high-tech giants, investment banks, venture capitalists, angel investors to start new companies.
I can only see whole new tech industries evolving. And I would like to use my knowledge and experience in direct guidance, along with that of other technology experts and the financial support and direct advice from CEOs of all the major high-tech companies, to make this happen.
EET: One of your partners, basketball legend Earl Monroe, made a comment recently that his generation of ball players practiced a unique style of play that some call street basketball. How might this sort of "street smarts" have an effect on technology development or the role that African Americans might play in innovation?
Murdock: Well, just in general, when you grow up in the ghetto the inner city, as it's now called you always have to think outside the box because it's mostly about survival. When you are concentrating on just surviving, it makes you very, very creative, and if you took that level of creativity that you find in the inner cities and let the high-tech industry embrace it on the CEO level and above, the industry would never be the same. There would be no country in this world that could compete with America if that talent were properly nurtured and exposed to the great array of technology that companies have created over the past three decades.
EET: What should be done to nurture and tap the innovation potential behind this creativity?
Murdock: The will to do something has to come from the CEOs of all the major high-tech companies. By "will," I mean that you have to put your financial efforts behind a vision. And the vision to effectively change where African American youth now sit at the table may not come from the high-tech giants it may come from the outside but because of the experience of these major billion-dollar conglomerates, they can tell the difference between someone who presents a real vision and someone who's a fake. So sit down with [these young people] and talk with them, and if you see that there's a real person sitting across the table with a real vision, that not only can help change inner city youth's thinking about technology, but it can have a net effect on the entire educational system, including the way engineers and computer scientists are taught in college.
Right now there's not enough real learning taking place in engineering schools, in high schools, in colleges, in junior high schools. What I mean by real learning is that you've got to have real-life examples of what you're learning. If you're going to learn design, have a real project instead of a lab experiment to work on. How else can you learn? Let's face it, when you leave engineering school, you're not really capable of doing much; you have to be re-educated. So why not take that energy and do it right the first time?
EET: Why is there a need for more African American technologists?
Murdock: Right now, America is in great danger of losing the technological race because its intellectual assets are underutilized, and that includes African American youth and women. Many youth in general have no interest in becoming engineers, simply because the industry markets its message poorly. The problem is even more haunting when it comes to African American youth. Some very smart engineers come from India, China and Europe. Some have the option of going back to their country of origin to contribute to its growth. Someone has to take their place [in the United States].
Intellectual property comes from the human mind. Every country is putting its best foot forward in this race for who will dominate human intelligence, which is what it boils down to. Yet in America a significant portion of our population, specifically African America youth, is not being brought to bear in this global competition. Give African American youth a real chance to succeed, and the high-tech industry in our country will never be the same.
Every child lives up to the expectations [that others have for that child]. My expectations for African American youth are very high: to succeed and strive for excellence in high tech. I've dedicated my life to this effort.
EET: Your company, Internet Golf Multimedia, focused on one segment of the sports world. What's the connection between sports and music in your culture that provides a bridge for today's African American young people?
Murdock: Twenty-four years ago, sports was virgin territory in technology, and even today, with the games marketplace becoming a multibillion[-dollar] space, it's all still centered on virtual reality.
Using Sun's and Microsoft's technology, [my colleagues] Philip Williams, Mohamed Aboshihata and I found a way to go to the next logical level, way beyond the virtual world. We have married multiple levels of biofeedback to let golfers find their "zone" when practicing or playing on the Internet with the Genius Golf System. We can even let two or more people play any sport with a smart device that can be held in their hand, with their brains on automatic pilot, to find that zone.
Everyone in the world can relate to sports and music, since they supercede culture and language. Sports and music are digital equivalents; both apply the very best teaching in science and technologies in the world. That will especially appeal to African American youth and youth in general worldwide. That's something that most people are not aware of.
EET: What do you think the connection is between music or sports and innovation and technology?
Murdock: The direct connection is, in sports and music, in order to be the very best, you have to be extremely creative, and that's something you learn how to be when you grow up in an inner city.
EET: So we're just not providing the opportunities?
Murdock: That is correct. [But doing so is] important for us for maintaining our current standard of living because everyone has to participate in order to help the country stay strong. You have to also consider the changing demographics [as minorities account for a growing percentage of the U.S. population]. So why not start to nurture those kids who love computers? We need to take advantage of that.
EET: Why are role models and mentors so important?
Murdock: Everybody in the world feels more comfortable in general when they gaze across the table and see someone who looks like them. Visible African American role models who are noted for their innovations or successes would bring thousands upon thousands of youth to high tech in next to no time. But without a mentor or role model who's visible and whom people can relate to in the African American community, nothing will ever change.
EET: How serious is the "digital divide" in places like the Bronx today?
Murdock: I do not place much credence in the digital divide. It's about creating a superior learning system. If you install a high-speed network and give every African American youth a computer, it does not make things intellectually better for them. The same goes for building Web sites or robots. Without teaching African American youth real technology, it's like a pacifier. It can also kill the sense of innovation.
There are already many personal computers in inner cities just ask Dell, Gateway and HP. Does having a PC improve grades? Maybe. Can a nation as great as America operate on a maybe? I don't think so. It's about the content. It's always about the content. If a kid cannot read, write, have basic math skills or use deductive and inductive reasoning, he or she will be lost in high tech and also lost in life.
EET: What should city, state and federal governments do to change things?
Murdock: Our national security is at stake. I believe this in my heart and in my head, since our security is closely tied to our high-tech industry. Our president, Congress, governors, mayors, city councils should meet with me, since I have some of the best solutions for change in the country, if not the world. I have already been invited by different countries to explore creating technology centers of innovation. All of our elected officials should be willing to allocate millions of dollars to put behind new solutions, since the old ones are simply not working.
EET: So as you enter a new phase in your life and shift your attention from your business to new opportunities in the community you represent, what is your vision for the future?
Murdock: My love for America keeps me here. Although countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East are highly interested in my innovative talents, for the time being, if I can help educate African American youth on the beauty of technology as expressed through music and sports . . . I could say that God and country were truly honored. I want to see all African American youth start their own companies, and I want to be in a position to provide financing to them all. Everyone needs that helping hand to go to the next phase of their vision, and we should be willing to give everyone that chance, including African American youth.