Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at Million Women Mentors Summit and Gala

Million Women Mentors Summit & Gala

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

Keynote Address

September 21, 2015 3:00 P.M.

National Press Club, Washington, D.C.


Good afternoon everyone!  I hope you are enjoying the summit so far. I couldn’t be more delighted and energized to be here at the National Press Club, before this impressive gathering of elected officials, leaders, and distinguished speakers, who share my deep passion for promoting girls and women in STEM. And as I look around the room, I could not be more delighted and energized. So thank you to STEMconnector, Million Women Mentors, and all of your partners, for inviting me here and bringing us all together. Your commitment to connecting 1 million STEM mentors with millions of women and girls is both inspiring and tremendously important.

We are all here to speak to the world, about the vital role mentors play for girls and women who are considering or who are already in STEM fields. The interest and commitment of my many mentors is a key reason that I became who I am as a person and a STEM professional. It’s because of help from those mentors that I now have the honor of serving as the first woman to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in our country’s 225+ year history! With such an honor comes quite a bit of responsibility. This is why I feel that a heightened duty and opportunity to encourage more girls and women to follow a STEM path, and to also urge others to be their champions.

Part of my passion for this cause comes from my upbringing in Silicon Valley. My first mentor was my Dad. Like all of the fathers on the street where I grew up, he was an engineer. He kept our garage stocked with transistors and resistors, circuit diagrams, wire strippers, and a soldering iron.  Those tools sure came in handy when he built our living room TV set! Watching my Dad take things apart, tinker, and make things inspired my own innate curiosity. It wasn’t long before we built ­­­­a hand-held radio together. At that time, I thought that building radios was what every girl did. Thankfully, my Dad never told me otherwise. That childhood experience—of building something and seeing it work—left a permanent impression on me. And while there was a part of me that wanted to become a professional ballet dancer …I ultimately followed in my father’s footsteps into engineering.

In school, I was fortunate to be taught by some great math teachers – including Mrs. Crane, Mr. Williams and Mrs. Halverson (I remember each one fondly!). In the sixth grade, Mrs. Crane and my father encouraged my interest in math to the point where I completed a full year’s worth of curriculum in a semester.  And, from then on, I remained a full year head. I was fascinated by mathematics and couldn’t get enough, to the point where schoolmates more than two grades above me would ask me to check their work.

After high school, I took my curiosity with me to MIT. There, I took an intro to computer science class taught by Professor Harold Abelson. He could make anyone like computer science!  Although his was a very difficult class, students who weren’t even required to take the class took it anyway. I enjoyed his class so much I eventually earned my bachelor’s and master’s in computer science at MIT, with Professor Abelson as my thesis advisor! That’s how impactful an inspiring teacher can be.

Every mentor has the same opportunity to inspire their mentees, and of course, every pledge to Million Women Mentors represents one more of these opportunities. These opportunities are important, because as I continued on my path as a women in STEM, I noticed that more and more of the girls and women around me left that path. In junior high and high school, my math and science classes were roughly half girls and half boys. As I took calculus and advanced calculus, the numbers decreased. By the time I went to college, women studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT were definitely in the minority, and later, I was one of even fewer number of women working as a graduate student in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab.

My 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. But as I joined the high stakes world of litigating patents, the numbers of women around me dwindled further. So throughout my career in tech, I’ve often been one of a small number of women in the room and an even smaller number at the table. That’s why, in 2004, I co-founded a group called ChIPs, a non-profit organization founded by seven women heads of patents and intellectual property from major technology companies in the Silicon Valley to promote the development and retention of women in technology and intellectual property, including through mentoring.

Mentors - regardless of their gender - can help women, and most importantly girls, not only “see” themselves in a STEM role, but also thrive in STEM roles. Mentors expose their mentees to new opportunities and networks, encourage them, and help them navigate obstacles along the way. Which, of course, takes commitment. It takes time, effort, and patience on the part of both the mentor and mentee. I’ve learned that when it comes to becoming a mentor, there’s no need to wait for someone to knock on your door. And, for those seeking mentorship, do not limit yourself to seeking out only those mentors who “look” like you.  If I had waited for mentors who looked like me, I would have been waiting for a long time.  And I would have missed the many opportunities to be mentored by so many who have made a profound difference in my life.

The emerging story of the Million Women Mentors movement is – and should continue to be - one of collaboration, perseverance and empowerment. But it is also a story of numbers. Some of those numbers are troubling. Two of the professional areas in which women are the least represented are computer science and electrical engineering, the fields I studied. Women are also underrepresented as inventors listed on patents, a disparity that I see clearly as the first woman Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A National Women’s Business Council study indicated that women were named as inventors on only 18 percent of all patents granted in 2010. To address this, the USPTO will be holding a “Gender Gap in Patenting” symposium this fall, bringing together experts to discuss what we can do to increase women’s representation on patents.

The story is much the same across the board for women in STEM fields.  That story is not acceptable. But the news isn’t all dire. STEM Connector, the National Center for Women in Information Technology, and many others represented here, are working actively to increase those numbers.  Now let me be clear. I am not advocating for women and girls because I am a woman. I am advocating for women and girls because I am a person, who understands that we cannot succeed in the global economy with, in effect, one hand tied behind our back. At the broadest level, the mission of the USPTO is to promote American innovation, and I believe this should be across all geographic regions of the country, and across all demographics.  

Improving the numbers of women in STEM requires a long-term approach, and that’s why, at the USPTO, we have a number of initiatives underway to help. We start upstream, by reaching out to girls as early as elementary school, through a number of different programs.  One of them is Camp Invention, a partnership with the non-profit Invent Now.  Each year, more than 100,000 elementary-school-aged kids in all 50 states participate in the week-long, summer enrichment program called “Camp Invention,” where they get hands-on experience on how to design, prototype, build, test and refine a specific device. Another is our partnership with the Girl Scouts of America, to create a patch on IP and innovation. To earn the IP patch, young women learn about the fundamentals of patents, trademarks, and copyrights, then put their innovative spirits to work on creating something. I was a girl scout once (first a brownie, then a junior) and the patches I remember receiving were on First Aid and sewing!

Moving up, at the high school level, the USPTO has partnered with Urban Alliance, a program that provides internship and mentorship opportunities for high school students.  Keep in mind, since one of our core duties is to review and grant patents on America’s latest technological innovations, the USPTO must hire many people with STEM backgrounds. A number of bright and enthusiastic students brought their talents to the USPTO this past school year. I’m proud to say that the USPTO was the federal agency with the largest number of Urban Alliance interns. One of our interns, Isabel, said she wanted an opportunity that would not only teach her about professionalism, but also teach her—“how to be a better me.” She added that she enjoyed being immersed in an environment that gave her a better view of a possible—and achievable—future. But more than anything, Isabel emphasized that her Urban Alliance experience provided her with a strong support system and mentors, who—as she put it—“invested in my future . . . set great examples[,] and taught me how to be a strong, successful woman.”

I’m particularly proud of how well represented women are in STEM jobs at the USPTO. While women hold less than 25% of U.S. STEM jobs and 15% of such jobs in Silicon Valley …Our patent examiner corps contains 50% more women in jobs requiring STEM backgrounds than U.S. industry and twice the percentage compared to Silicon Valley. We need to take advantage of this momentum and do even more to recruit and retain more women in STEM fields. I’ve launched an initiative at the USPTO called “All in STEM” – to encourage more women to pursue STEM degrees and to work and advance in STEM careers, for the benefit of our economy and society. Because the USPTO and our entire country need ALL IN STEM, whether your name is Isabel or Ahmed. Through All in STEM, we are working with other government agencies and organizations dedicated to advancing girls and women in STEM.   

According to a recent Department of Commerce report, STEM jobs are being created at three times the rate of non-STEM positions. And according to the American Association of University Women, the U.S. will need almost two million new engineering and computing professionals in the next seven years. Many of these STEM jobs pay higher than average.  But even with such attractive economic incentives, 57% of all girls say that girls don’t typically consider a career in STEM. Getting more young women interested in STEM fields is vital to our continued economic success, but we have our work cut out for us. That is why events such as this are crucial.

I am the mother of a young daughter. As she gets older and chooses a career, I hope she’ll live in a world where there are has just as many women in STEM as men in STEM. And, while I am tremendously honored to be the first woman to head the United States Patent and Trademark Office in our country’s 225+ year history, for my daughter, I yearn for a society where there are no longer such firsts. I’m an optimist. I believe this can happen. I believe it will happen. And our economy—and our society—will be better for it.

President Abraham Lincoln, the only President to hold a patent, said that the patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius. Mentors add the fuel of inspiration to the fire of possibility. That is why today, I want to commend what Million Women Mentors is doing. Thank you to those who have dedicated valuable time and effort to serving as mentors and also for the enthusiasm of the mentees to forge ahead on this path. To date, the Million Women Mentors Movement has reached nearly half a million pledges. That is truly something to celebrate!

Finally, I want to encourage all of you to share the lessons you’ve learned from being a mentor or mentee, as well as your thoughts on what more we all can do to increase the representation of women in STEM fields. At the USPTO, we’ll be broadcasting the word about mentoring through our All In STEM initiative, including on social media with our hashtag #AllinSTEM. And we would love to hear ­­─ and further share ─ your stories. So let us know what you’re doing to advance women in STEM by tweeting your story with the #AllinSTEM hashtag. That’s #AllinSTEM, for those of you on your phones right now! Together, we can encourage, mentor, support, and advance girls and women in STEM, from all backgrounds.  Every successful person has the responsibility to mentor, to be a role model, to open their network, to volunteer, to teach, and to inspire success in those around them. Because at this moment, we truly need All In STEM.

Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the summit!

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