As a young boy growing up in a working class Flint community, David Tarver used to marvel at the maze of electronic equipment his dad kept stashed away in the family’s basement. A postal worker, the elder Tarver, didn’t get much of a chance to pursue his passion as a profession. But that never stopped him from trying.
Years later, those efforts became the wind under his son’s wings. The younger Tarver, now 59, is a successful author, entrepreneur and electrical engineer. And, he says he owes it all to lessons learned in his dad’s homemade laboratory.
“I saw what he wanted to do and wasn’t able to do,” says Tarver. “The fact that he tried is what enabled me to do what I did. If he hadn’t gone to the post office every day and had not had all those gadgets around the house, I would not have had the interest in electronics.”
The University of Michigan graduate shares his journey in Proving Ground (Cypress House, 2012), a memoir that offers an inside look at a career that began at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, and led to Telecom Analysis Systems (TAS), a business he, too, launched in his basement. In 1983, Tarver, still inspired by his dad’s determination, wanted to see how far he could take his dream. So he and two, buddies, Charles Simmons and Steve Moore, quit their prestigious jobs at AT&T to try a very risky venture.
For African Americans — part of the first wave of minorities hired by A&T Bell — the decision was almost heresy. Friends told them they were crazy. Former co-workers reacted with shock. Their spouses were supportive, but concerned.
“It was tough in the beginning,” admits Tarver, “We didn’t know ourselves if we would succeed and there were times when our wives wished we would get a real job.”
Within two years, everyone’s attitude had changed. After months of sputtering along, sales picked up and salaries for the three co-owners began to match and eventually surpass earnings at their former job. In 1995, Tarver and his partners sold TAS to Bowthorpe (now Spirent) for $30 million. From 1996 to 1999, Tarver spearheaded development of a Spirent telecommunications test equipment business with sales of over $250 million and a market value in excess of $2 billion. Around this time, he also began searching for ways to make a greater contribution to the community and to offer other students the inspiration he says he received at an early age. So, he joined the National Advisory Committee for the University of Michigan College of Engineering and the U-M- Board of Directors.
“One of the things I was concerned about was making sure that the college provided access to all students, particularly students who might be from urban areas or middle or lower class backgrounds,” he says. “I was also concerned that the classroom environment be conducive for those students to have success.”
In 1999, Tarver left Spirent and, two years later, took his humanitarian endeavors a step further. He founded the Education and Development Initiative, a not-for-profit that created dramatic improvements in the academic performance of youth in Red Bank, New Jersey. At the time, only 25 percent of the K-12 school students in the area, a small town of 12,000, were passing the state’s standardized tests. These same students had to attend high school in neighboring communities where students were scoring in the 90th percentile. The Red Bank students were so far behind they couldn’t compete.
Under Tarver’s initiative, parents, educators, health officials and community activists came together to “whack away at the problem.” After a number of meetings and six months of collecting data, searching for recommendations and writing reports, the group implemented a plan that changed the district’s academic trajectory. The student population — an estimated 1,000 Hispanic and Black youth — shot from 25 percent to a 60 percent success rate on standardized exams.
But Tarver’s vision doesn’t end at the border of Red Bank. He moved back to the Detroit area in 2007 and currently lives in Birmingham, Michigan, with his wife, Kishna Sharif and daughter Nadiyah Louise. He says he firmly believes that people from all segments of society should be represented in professions like engineering.
“Think of the people who invented the transistor; some of these guys were from a rural environment and modest means,” he says, adding that Claude Shannon, whose bust is showcased on campus in front of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EEC) Building, is an individual from modest means who had a significant impact on the world of science.
“We need solutions from the all environments, from African Americans, from Asians, and Latinos,” he says. “We’re all aware of different problems in our communities and we are served well if all of these people have access to a great university.”
From that standpoint, Tarver would like to see more alumni get involved in the recruitment and mentorship of the next generation of engineers. In 1995, he established Michigan Engineering’s Fred and Louise Tarver Scholarship. Named in honor of his parents, the scholarship provides up to four years of educational support for students from Flint or Detroit selected by the Dean’s office.To date, ten students have been awarded the scholarship, described by Tarver as a recognition of “hard work and determination,” the same values his parents exemplified and the principles he espouses in his book.
“I wrote Proving Ground because when I was growing up witnessing my father’s situation, he was interested in electronics, but opportunities for someone like him were limited in those days,” he adds. “I was curious about what would be possible for me. I started the business as much as an experiment as it was to build career and financial success. I wondered if it could be done. I wrote the book because I learned a lot of things along the way. I learned how to build a successful business from scratch. That’s something a lot people have done, but not a long of Africans American have done it… I felt it was important to tell our story.”