Renaissance man, tech visionary
By Donald Barnes
Special to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — For Richard Clay, owning his own business was something he always wanted. At two years old, Clay went completely blind. For him, it was the equivalent of being born blind, because, he says, he cannot remember ever seeing. That didn’t stop him, however, from achieving his goals.
Clay attended the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor where he got his first taste of entrepreneurship.
A doctor in the Ann Arbor area by the name of Floyd Madison created a beverage called “Soda Pump.” “Around 1992, I became a distributor for his soft drink franchise,” Clay told the Michigan Citizen.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s in education, Clay returned to Detroit — seeking to become a successful business owner.
Not long after his return, he opened his first successful business, an African American cultural store on Dexter and Elmhurst called Black Creations. “At the cultural store I sold all items that highlighted Black culture, mainly music, Afro centric clothing, books and art. It was sort of like a smaller version of what a Black bookstore would be but music was the main thing,” Clay said.
“I sold a lot of cassette tapes and CDs, and I sold a lot of books, oils and incense. I had a really nice rapport over there with the public.”
Clay knew that being blind would be an obstacle he’d have to overcome as a local business owner in a neighborhood riddled with crime. He didn’t let his handicap defeat him. He knew that all businesses dealt with some sort of crime and his would be no different. Clay took precaution with his valuables, keeping them behind glass counters or locked up in the back of the store. “When I first was going to open my store, people, including family members, would tell me, ‘it’s no need in you doing this — people are going to rob you blind,’” Clay said, chuckling.
“I had my own tricks of the trade. I had my business inside of another business. I chose it that way so I would always be surrounded by others. That way I wasn’t open to be hurt, because there were people always around.”
Clay says it’s also about the relationship you develop with the people in the community.
“I got the people to respect my store and the products we offered them,” he said.
“I did a lot of community work, I was on the board of the Dexter Elmhurst Community Center, which was just reopening. We were trying to provide services to people in that area, so I tried to get them to see me not only as a business person but as a community leader as well.”
Clay would fall on hard times in the early 2000s with the rapid change of the music industry. He says his store thrived from music sales, and when the Internet took over the music industry, he was forced to shut down Black Creations.
“Around 2002, there was a drastic change in the music business; all the record stores started going out of business. The bootlegging and digital copying of albums and CDs became main stream. Even the record warehouses started closing,” Clay said. “That was indication to me that it wasn’t going to be long. When the warehouses started going down, it was quite clear a little mom-and-pop store like mine was not going to be able to survive off of selling music anymore.”
After closing the store Clay began pursing his next goal, which was becoming a teacher.
Though Clay’s master’s degree in education should have been qualification enough for a teaching job, hiring a blind teacher wasn’t the easiest thing to do for Detroit Public Schools (DPS) administrators, Clay said. “I had to deal with and overcome some discrimination. At that time, DPS was really looking for teachers, I was going on job interviews and not getting hired,” Clay said. “A lot of people didn’t think that a blind teacher (could do the job) … they just didn’t see it. DPS, of course, had a reputation for their students; a lot of administrators, including those who worked downtown in the central offices at that time, didn’t see a blind teacher fitting in with that reputation.”
It took a couple of years for Clay to get hired, but after relentless effort, he was hired to teach social studies at Northwestern High School.
According to Clay, the students were shocked in the beginning, but learned to respect him as their teacher. “It was really good while I was there. I had a great relationship with my students and teacher peers,” Clay said. “I taught in DPS from ‘99 to ‘06, and in 2003 I was an honorable mention for teacher of the year. The students really came to like me as a teacher.”
After having a successful teaching career, Clay returned to entrepreneurship. His current business, Clay Telecomm offers Android platform tablets at affordable prices. “I didn’t see any African Americans involved that high up in (telecommunications),” Clay said. “So I created my own line of Android tablets that were a lot more cost effective. I began to sell them wholesale. I saw that by selling wholesale I could get them to people who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs.”
Clay is currently looking to sell to higher institutions, and he now customizes his tablets, saying there are very few companies in the country that offer customized tablets.
“We put into the boot-up of the tablet, the company’s graphic, name, and contact information, so every time the tablet is turned on, you see that companies logo,” Clay said.
“It serves as constant advertising and promotion for that company. Everyone’s so used to turning (tablets) on and seeing the Windows’ sign or Apple’s logo. This is brand new; we’ve just rolled it out.”
According to Clay, African Americans spend more money in the telecommunications field than any other group in the nation.
“This is a multi-billion dollar industry annually, they target our communities,” Clay said. “Very seldom do we purchase cell phones or tablets from another African American, therefore every time that we do that we’re sending that money out of our community net. I’ve figured out a way where we can continue to make these purchases and keep some of the business in our community.”
You can reach Richard Clay at (313) 247-3301.