How a Shakespeare-Loving Former Skidmore Basketball Star Wound Up on the Executive Team at a $100 Million Tech Startup

You would probably have to dig through some of the dusty, old boxes in my parents’ basement in Saratoga Springs to confirm this, but in my awkward, teenage years, I was a Division III collegiate basketball superfan, an obsessive acolyte of the Skidmore College Men’s Basketball teams of the early to mid 1990s. I attended nearly every Thoroughbreds home game (and many away games, too), knew all of the players’ names by heart and sometimes, even got to hang out with them. This was the era of Coach John Quattrocchi—the Phil Jackson of Skidmore men’s basketball—and he had a scrappy, diverse group of student-athletes on his teams that included names such as Yusef, Idris and Akil Screen, Tyson Nargassans, Jeff Winter, Andre Cook, Chris Rasmussen, Neil Ivey and Adam Clay.

It was Clay, though, the team’s 6′ 7″ gentle giant of a center and power forward, who took a shine to me—after all, I was the son of his English professor, Murray Levith, also an avid Skidmore basketball fan, whom he’d taken Shakespeare from and who would later be instrumental in sending him, post-graduation, to a Chinese university in Qufu, China, where my dad taught in the late ’80s (our family lived in Qufu for the year; most notably, it’s the birthplace of Confucius). Now, I’m taking an educated guess here that this happened some time during the 1994-95 National Basketball Association season, but Clay’s teammate, Ivey, invited the entire team down to Boston to spend an afternoon in his father’s luxury box at the Boston Garden to catch the Boston Celtics tip-off against the Orlando Magic, and the team, by way of Clay, extended the invite to its biggest cheerleader and fan: me. In what can only be described as the D-III men’s college basketball equivalent of the bus scene from Almost Famous, I rode down to Beantown with this rag-tag group of college b-ballers, some of whom were juniors and seniors, talking about girls and whatever the heck else a teenage boy has inside his head. (Example: I remember taking exception with Rasmussen’s girlfriend’s hairdo, and the bus dissolving into uproarious laughter.)

By the summer of ’95, Clay had graduated from Skidmore, taking that job teaching English in China, and I never saw him or any of his teammates ever again. Those were the days before email or social media, so it made it difficult to keep casual tabs on people, lest you ask your professor dad for a twentysomething’s address in China and write a clumsy letter in your own hand. (A dying art, I tell you.) Some 25 or so years later—me, now a “grown up” with a career of my own—Clay’s name popped up in my LinkedIn newsfeed, and we reconnected, but in that oh-so-impersonal, business-social-platform sort of way (i.e. “thanks for adding me to your network!”) Then, late last year, I noticed that Clay had shared a press release about a new company he was working for called Beyond Identity, a digital startup that was trying to render the password obsolete. It had raised more than $100 million in venture capital funding, and Clay was serving as its chief revenue officer (CRO). I was intrigued.

So, how exactly does a Skidmore graduate and former D-III men’s basketball player go from studying Shakespeare and teaching English in China to heading up revenue generation at a high-growth tech firm? It turns out that my dad, who has long since retired from Skidmore, had something to do with it, indirectly. Clay, who double majored in English and American Studies while on campus, describes my father as “the most influential college professor” he ever had, adding that he instilled in Clay a love of reading and analyzing literature and Shakespeare that has continued into present day. That, and the time Clay spent in Qufu after graduation “has come up in every single job interview I’ve ever had.” He adds: “I became familiar with Chinese culture, made lifelong friends in China and returned there routinely on business over the course of my career.” From China, Clay ventured to Korea, where he worked as a technology consultant. In all, he spent more than two-and-a-half years living and working in Asia before returning to the states to pursue a career in digital sales.

Now, I would be surprised to find anyone who would be able to identify any meaningful connection between the Bard, basketball and international sales, but the confluence of the three seemingly meets up to mold Clay. Having logged his hours at an Upstate New York liberal arts institution and in classes taught by my father and other talented Skidmore professors, Clay believes his academic experience transformed him into one of the outliers in his field—an executive, who can find the nuances others miss in text, sponging it up, critically analyzing and translating it from business-ese gobbledygook into the poetry of revenue generation. “By reading Shakespeare and absorbing it and then writing about it, you’re using the same muscle that you would to read through an annual report or decipher all of the data that is coming at you when you’re putting a transaction or complex deal together,” explains Clay. “At the same time, you’re learning the certain elements and economy of language. Through all of that, I think I learned how to express myself, and I’ve worked on [that art] for 22 years. I have a few thousand books in my collection. I love to read and talk and share ideas. If I hadn’t gone to Skidmore, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

When Adam Clay isn’t working hard at Beyond Identity, you can find him sailing, a pastime he says is “a big part of my life.” (Adam Clay)

On the basketball front, there’s more than a little poetry there, too. Clay attended high school in the tiny village of Red Hook, NY (about 1.5 hours south of Saratoga), where he starred for Red Hook High, scoring 1,000 career points and competing under New York State Basketball Hall of Fame coaching legend, Rod Chando. “In high school, you’re always a big fish in a small pond,” says Clay. “But then you go to Skidmore, and it’s not Duke, but you learn to win as a team, and you find a lot of joy when you compete and are victorious. We had a lot of great teams.” Clay joined the Thoroughbreds as a freshman in ’91 and played through his senior year in ’95. “I started more than half of the games that I was involved in at Skidmore,” he says. “That’s where I got my competitive spirit; the joy of winning as a team was absolutely fostered at Skidmore.”

Which brings us to that final piece of the puzzle, global sales, which has a lot to do with having the right team in place, and outpacing and eventually, if all cylinders fire properly, crushing the competition. After his adventure in Asia, Clay was hired as the director of sales at CTNY, a position he landed through a fellow Skidmore alum, and afterwards, worked his way up through the sales ranks at software giant Keynote Systems (now Dynatrace), where he was able to work for one of his heroes, CEO Umang Gupta, who had taken his daughter to visit Skidmore and shared a deep appreciation for the college with Clay (Gupta’s daughter ended up attending Dartmouth). After working in a number of other sales leadership positions and earning a master’s from Brown University, Clay wound up as the CRO at Logz.io, an engineer-focused cloud platform company. That was the stepping stone he needed to get to Beyond Identity, where he’s been since last September.

Beyond Identity was founded by Silicon Valley veterans Jim Clark, who most notably launched Netscape Communications Corporation, once behind one of the world’s top web browsers; and Tom “TJ” Jermoluk, who launched one of the first major Internet service providers, @Home Network. So, despite being a new kid on the digital block, the company already has built-in pedigree, industry respect and a track record for success—the tech world equivalent of the Chicago Bulls, circa The Last Dance. And just like that superteam, Beyond Identity is in it to win it—and believes it has an his-Airness-style game-winning fadeaway jumper in its passwordless technology platform, which it’s hoping will help bring an end to the username-and-password era. “We sell to any organization in the world that, as part of doing or running its business, requires people to authenticate themselves to its systems using passwords,” says Clay. So, in a nutshell, pretty much any company, with its target client being those firms large enough to need to trust in something other than a password to protect themselves, their employees and customers from the inherent threat and vulnerabilities that passwords themselves possess. Think about it for a second: When you log into your bank account from, say, your new iPhone—which, if you have the latest model, you can unlock via passwordless facial recognition technology—you have to use a password, which you yourself made up and might have stored on a sheet of paper at the bottom of your desk, to get into it. Given that your bank’s security system can’t identify that new smartphone of yours, it’s going to also text or email you an additional multi-digit authentication code, and maybe ask you a question like what your mother’s maiden name is before you can see how much that latest socially distanced cocktail party put you back. And even then it’s not entirely clear that it’s you going through all of those steps; it’s just your bank’s system’s most educated guess. “What Beyond Identity wants to do is eliminate the password in those employee and customer interactions, because let’s face it, the majority of the world’s hacks occur because a password has been compromised,” explains Clay. “In eliminating the password, we want to not only improve the user experience—because nobody likes passwords—but also simultaneously eliminate the biggest attack surface that bad guys go after.” So, in a sense, Beyond Identity is trying to put girls with dragon tattoos (i.e. hackers) out of business, and if it succeeds in doing so, that could not only translate to a mint for the company, but also solve a problem that has plagued everyone from Equifax and Yahoo to JPMorgan and even the US government in recent years. That list continues to expand annually.

If you were wondering, Beyond Identity is so confident in its own passwordless tech that it uses it at its own company, which operates out of locations in New York City, Miami and Plano, TX, as well as remotely. (Clay is based in the Boston area and is currently working remotely, due to the pandemic; he would normally commute in to the NYC headquarters or spread Beyond Identity’s gospel on the road). “I haven’t had to use a password since my first day on the job,” boasts Clay. “We use a combination of biometric data (i.e. facial recognition software), finger-swipe technology and the qualities of modern laptops and cellphones to create, in a really secure manner, a personal certificate.” In this case, “personal certificate” doesn’t refer to the paper scroll you got when you won the math-letics championship in sixth grade but rather the thing that ultimately takes the place of your highly unlikable password. That picture of your face and the pin number your iPhone uses to open it up is stored in what is known as a “secure enclave,” basically the Fort Knox of the digital world, notes Clay. They are then leveraged to create a unique personal certificate, which identifies you and only you, using Beyond Identity’s software to your company or bank. “Given the unique nature, security and sanctity of modern certificate technology, that organization, which you have to identify yourself to, is then assured that it’s you,” says Clay.

Sure, a hacker could slice off your face and reattach it to her own, John Woo–style, then try to gain access to your iPhone, but that seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Take away your need for a password, though, during any step of the process, and there is literally no way to crack Beyond Identity’s code. “People have been trying to solve this problem for 20 years,” says Clay. “The fact that passwords suck is not a unique problem. So, we just came up with novel technology that allows for the elimination of those passwords.” And it’s not altogether outlandish to assume that someday, the technology that Beyond Identity is currently selling companies will be used by every company, including the one you’re working for right now. “If we could just eliminate passwords for the world’s technology-using population, we’d be pretty happy,” says Clay. “That’s the mission we’re on.” Imagine that: no more multi-digit codes, no more secret questions, and thanks be to the digital gods, no more ransom-note-like paper scrap at the bottom of your desk, with hundreds of combinations of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters written on it. Or as the Bard might put it, “words, words, words.”

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