A federal agency focused on entrepreneurship and innovation is advancing its mission with local and grassroots initiatives, while sharing lessons on increasing diversity in those sectors.
The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) kicked off its annual Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium with a fireside chat on advancing women in intellectual property. 2021 also features a new presidential administration, and in true D.C. style, this event series started with a nod to the transition. The virtual March 3 event featured the U.S. Department of Commerce’s current deputy assistant secretary for administration, Wynn Coggins — the same day she stepped down as the acting secretary of commerce.
The former PTO executive started the event series by emphasizing the importance of mentorship. According to Coggins, the PTO has been more impactful than technical industries and law firms in “blazing a trail for women in executive leadership positions,” with over 30% of executive positions filled by women. She attributed their success partly to mentorship, which emerged as a prevalent topic for panelists.
Coggins noted that in a virtual world, mentorship isn’t just getting coffee or time of someone’s calendar. “Mentorship is also watching and learning,” she said. Her advice to mentees: “Surround yourself with mentors who, frankly, don’t think like you do. … It improved my self-awareness, which I think is the number one quality that most successful leaders have.”
Why select a mentor that thinks differently than you? “There are other ways to look at and solve problems… it helped show me the value of being inclusive.” – @CommerceGov’s Wynn Coggins speaking at WES: https://t.co/k5s9qCGPRw #ExpandingAmericanInnovation pic.twitter.com/WB7oroOLIc
— USPTO (@uspto) March 3, 2021
Aligned with this notion, moderator Valencia Martin Wallace, deputy commissioner for patents at the PTO, said a significant mentor in her career was a man 30 years her senior who had little in common with her.
Panelist and dual utility patent awardee Kimberly Meckwood found mentorship to be integral to her product development. A “Shark Tank” alum and patented inventor of the Click and Carry, Meckwood and others emphasized federal resources as paramount for pivoting to an entrepreneurial and inventor role.
Panelists pitched PTO resources including its hub for startups, regional office space, and grant programs and loans; National Venture Capital Association’s pro bono resources; Small Business Administration’s SCORE volunteers, and the Department of Commerce as a whole. Training on trademarks and accreditations also helped panelists.
“Many of these resources… are FREE. Our favorite four letter word! We want people to take advantage of these opportunities.” USPTO’s Elizabeth Dougherty speaks about resources available to help #WomenEntrepreneurs, including legal assistance: https://t.co/KftiSbMHYO
— USPTO (@uspto) March 3, 2021
To Coggins, understanding the rules of the business generation landscape is the first step to innovation.
“You need to understand the constraints so that you can understand the opportunities,” she said. “Getting a patent is a great example. It’s a complicated process, but if you do your homework and if you understand the process, it really makes it much easier.”
For Meckwood, “getting the utility patent provided [her] with a different level of confidence.” And now, she’s pursuing her third.
Creating a path to innovation and entrepreneurship for women that addresses confidence and engagement issues emerged as a theme of the symposium, too, exemplifying the intersection between the public and private sectors.
According to Coke Steward, deputy director of the PTO, about 22% of patents issued have at least one woman inventor, and about 13% of U.S. inventor patentees overall are women. On these numbers, Holly Fechner, a partner at D.C. law firm Covington & Burling LLC, said, “We absolutely have to celebrate those women and people of color who have made it in the innovation ecosystem.”
However, “women, people of color, and lower-income people don’t invent and patent as much as their share of the population,” Fechner added. “We need to be committed to trying to expand who participates in our innovation ecosystem.” As executive director of the Invent Together campaign, Fechner researches the patent gap and advocates public policy and private sector solutions. She calls for more investment in STEM education and equitable hiring practices: “Institutions don’t really change until about a third of the people are from whatever the minority group is.”
Fechner emphasized that lack of engagement isn’t just a “pipeline problem.”
“As we’ve seen, it’s not the case because there’s so many points along the way as somebody is trying to succeed in this field that they could advance or be set back,” she said.
“Someone is much more likely to become an inventor if they are exposed as a child to other inventors," says Holly Fechner, highlighting the importance of invention #education at an early age. #WomenEntrepreneurs #ExpandingAmericanInnovation #WomenInSTEM pic.twitter.com/HXa8Amop90
— USPTO (@uspto) March 3, 2021
“Women struggle with not being a natural part of the ‘Boys Club,’ and I think that’s where a lot of the magic happens,” said Dara Kendall, VP and associate general counsel at The Procter & Gamble Company. On the corporate side, Kendall expedites initiatives to get to a more inclusive place. She highlighted Black haircare as a huge consumer opportunity, and said she seeks to build teams that understand the culture of hair: “Our company has been on a journey to build R&D teams, IP teams that basically get it.”
Creating an inclusive innovation community is a two-way street.
“Diversity makes each of us an integral piece of the puzzle, and we need all of those pieces to make that complete picture,” Kendall said. “I would challenge anybody to lean into their discomfort because you’re not only benefiting yourself, but you’re benefiting others.”
The final event for the 2021 Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium is “Investing in Innovation” on Wednesday, March 24, at noon EST. An adjacent event, “Wine & IP: Women’s History in the Wine Industry,” will also be on the 24th at 5 p.m. EST. Recordings for all events will be available on the PTO website.
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