Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at Girls Who Code Graduation at Georgetown University

Girls Who Code Graduation

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Michelle K. Lee

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

August 12, 2015, 6 p.m.

Lohrfink Auditorium, Hariri Building, Georgetown University

Thank you, Ha, and good evening everyone! And special thanks to Girls Who Code, BSA, and Georgetown University for putting this wonderful event together. I want to commend Reshma Saujani in particular for everything she has done in founding and leading this outstanding organization.

Girls Who Code does such fantastic, inspiring work. A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to meet a Girls Who Code graduating class in Santa Clara, California. Like today’s class, they were a sharp bunch of young women! Now, if I understand correctly, this is the first, inaugural graduating class for the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program in the D.C. area. This makes you trailblazers—something you should be very proud of. Congratulations! And congratulations to your families as well! Thank you for doing everything you can to support and encourage these young women.  

I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to code as a young girl long before anything like Girls Who Code existed. I can remember when my dad brought home the first IBM PC in the early 80’s, and I learned how to program in BASIC then PASCAL. Thankfully, it didn’t take many iterations of coding, so to speak, for me to become hooked. I loved the ability to create from my fingertips …using logic and know how. And I am excited to see the same opportunities blossom now for young people of all backgrounds.

My attraction to coding, and in a broader sense, to science and technology, was very much inspired by my upbringing. Like many of the young women here today, I was blessed with parents who encouraged me from an early age. My father was an engineer.  From the moment he sat down with me to build a hand-held radio together in our living room, I never doubted what I wanted to be: Either an engineer …or a professional ballet dancer. You can probably guess which career won out. In fact all of the dads on the street where I grew up in the Silicon Valley were engineers. Many of them started their own companies, often based on a clever invention—which they patented, to obtain venture capital funding and bring their inventions to the marketplace.   As you can imagine, some of their companies succeeded. Some didn’t.But of those that did, a few revolutionized the way we live—in far-reaching ways. This nurtured childhood passion for technology inspired me to study electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, where I was one of only a few women studying in those fields. And one of even fewer female graduate students in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. My experiences there—and later as a computer scientist at Hewlett-Packard’s Research Labs—were thrilling …and inform my work to this day. And I can still program in more languages than I speak: a definite point of pride for me.

That same passion for technology and innovation is what led me to later study and practice intellectual property law, to help some of our most innovative companies protect and commercialize their inventions. And I took that passion with me when I became the first Head of Patents and Patent Strategy at Google, when it was still just a young company.  In the span of eight years, my team helped build Google’s portfolio from a handful of patents to over 10,500! And now I’m the first woman in our nation’s history to be granting patents as head of the United States Patent and Trademark Office: An agency of almost 13,000 hardworking men and women.

Let’s consider two simple facts here More than half of our economic growth over the last 60 years resulted from technological innovation, much of which came from STEM related fields and jobs. Job growth in the future, especially for some of our higher paying jobs, is likely to continue coming from STEM related fields. But even in today’s high-tech environment, 57% of all girls say that girls don’t typically consider a career in STEM. Now, let’s think about this logically for a moment: If more than half of all U.S. economic growth comes from STEM jobs, yet more than half of all girls say that girls their age don’t typically consider a career in STEM—how will we compete? Without more women in STEM, are we not in effect, participating in the global economy with one hand tied behind our back? So clearly, getting more young women like you interested in STEM fields is vital to our economy, which is why I’m such a fan of Girls Who Code. Perhaps someday, you’ll even take your STEM skills to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where our examining corps contains 50% more women in STEM than U.S. industry at large. And while women represent less than 15% of executive officers in the nation, at the USPTO, women hold more than 30% of our senior executive positions. Like most people who work in technology I’m an optimist, and I hope the rest of our country’s workforce will catch up to those numbers before too long.

But before you get into the workforce, you’ll need to finish your formal education. I hope all of you are planning to attend college, and strongly considering STEM majors like math, science, and engineering. And perhaps while in college—as an undergraduate or graduate student—you might be inspired to create a new invention, perhaps even one that’s driven by code. At the USPTO we sponsor the Collegiate Inventors Competition, which features many inspiring young women. Last year’s Graduate Level winner, in fact, was a young woman named Katarzyna Sawicka from SUNY Stony Brook. She won the grand prize for her invention of the “Immuno-Matrix,” a non-invasive skin patch that uses nanofibers to deliver vaccines through skin. And by “non-invasive” I mean “without the use of needles”— a big plus in my book! Her invention also doesn’t require a medical technician to apply it, or refrigeration to store it, which means it has the potential to be a lifesaver for under-resourced and developing nations. That kind of innovation, and that kind of success, could be yours someday.

And when you encounter obstacles to success, remember that history is full of women who overcame such obstacles. Let me tell you the story of a woman who overcame some large obstacles to become a true scientific trailblazer.  A woman I had the pleasure of inducting into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this year. Edith Clarke was an early 20th Century mathematician who paved the way for me to study electrical engineering at MIT—because she was the very first woman to do so. Her employer, General Electric, didn’t see the need to have a woman actually work as an engineer, however. So instead, Edith was assigned to a team of women who performed the rote mathematical calculations the male employees found tedious. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it was back then. But Edith’s curiosity led her to devise a better solution.  She created a graphical calculator—a machine—to perform the complex math for her. She then patented that technology, and soon electrical engineers everywhere could better calculate the characteristics of long electrical transmission lines using her invention. An invention that made it far easier to deploy transmission lines across the vast geographic expanses of the United States and beyond. Think about the profound lesson here:  A woman, denied the kind of job to which her education rightly entitled her, used and overcame her adversity to benefit not only herself, but countless others in her profession—and the American public at large. History vindicated the profound worth of a smart and talented woman like Edith Clarke, as it has so many other women who rose to the challenge and were undeterred in the face of adversity.

Another one of these women is Grace Hopper, who emerges as a real star in Walter Isaacson’s latest book, “The Innovators.” Born in New York City in 1906, she studied math and physics at Vassar College and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934 from Yale–becoming one of the first women to earn such a degree. She joined the Navy during the Second World War and was assigned to program the Mark I computer.  After the war she continued to work in computing, leading the team that created the first computer language compiler, which led to the popular COBOL language.  She believed that programming languages should be as easily understood as English. Largely due to Grace Hopper’s influence, programmers today use “if/then” statements instead of 1s and 0s. And she even helped popularize the use of the term “bug” for errors in code.Grace Hopper was passionate about encouraging young people to learn how to program. And now the largest conference in the world for women in technology, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, uses her namesake to encourage women of all backgrounds to lead in the world of computing.

So as you think about your future—as you explore the many possible futures that lie in front of you—think of Grace Hopper, Edith Clarke, and Katarzyna Sawicka  These women applied scientific principles and study to make our world a better place.  In the same way, I have no doubt that many of you will impact our world in new and innovative ways. Innovation stems from curiosity. If we want to spark innovation, we need to encourage curiosity.  I see it in the flesh every day when I arrive home from work to be greeted by my five-year-old daughter. I’m amazed by the curiosity she exhibits …and frankly, challenged by some of the questions she poses! And I’m sure many of the parents here have seen that same curiosity glow in your daughters’ eyes. And so, to the girls here, and at home, I say, keep on innovating, learning, exploring and coding! A lifetime of bright opportunities lies ahead for all of you. Thank you!