At the end of 2020, I had the opportunity to attend a fireside chat hosted by Invent Together, a coalition of organizations, universities, companies and other stakeholders focused on understanding and addressing the diversity gap in invention and patenting. The panelists very well represented all these stakeholders with Dr. Andrei Iancu, the then Director of USPTO. He serves as the principal advisor to the Secretary of Commerce on Domestic and International Intellectual Property Policy Matters, Senator Mazie Hirono, Hawaii’s first female senator and the country’s first Asian American woman senator and sponsor of the Idea Act, Dr. Lisa Cook, professor of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University, and one of the leading academics on race and gender gaps in patenting and their impact on the economy, Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, the 16th President of Iowa State University and the first woman to hold the title and Alex Rogers, Executive Vice President and President of Qualcomm Technology Licensing (QTL). The hour-long conversation covered many critical topics, from the potential loss in GDP caused by the lack of equal access to the innovation economy to the impact that diversity has on teams, the importance of fostering innovation and, of course, STEM education.
By the end of the fireside chat, I was eager to dig deeper into the topic. Given that Qualcomm has the largest technology licensing business in the world and I had already had the opportunity to interview Dr. Marta Karczewicz one of the most prolific women inventors and patent holders who work at the company, I wanted to hear more from the man who since 2016 has led QTL managing intellectual property, regulatory and commercial matters: Alex Rogers.
I start my first question from a pretty obvious point: why inventors lack diversity? Rogers strongly believes that to understand the lack of diversity in the innovation economy, we must understand the innovation process’s whole arc, starting with STEM education. From a young age, many women believe that science, technology, math and engineering are not for them. The lack of role models from underrepresented groups only strengthens that conviction. What Rogers finds interesting is something that Dr. Karczewicz had also shared with me in our previous interview: the gender issue seems to be mostly a US problem. Women growing up in Western and Eastern Europe and China are not told that math, computer science, or engineering is not for them.
When we look at the US, the numbers paint a very clear picture. Women make up 51% of the population, but only 13% of all inventors listed on a patent in 2019 were women. The percentage of Black and Hispanic college graduates who hold patents is approximately half of white college graduates. Individuals born to families in the top one percent of income are ten times more likely to invent and obtain a patent in their lifetime than individuals born to families in the bottom half of income.
However, to Rogers’s point, the issue does not stop with the lack of diversity among inventors. There is also a strong lack of diversity among patent lawyers. Although some patent practice areas where women are well represented, such as biotechnology and chemistry, other areas continue to lack significant diversity. Women account for only 11.4 percent of patent practitioners with a technical background in electrical engineering and only 11.1 percent of patent practitioners have a technical background in mechanical engineering. In contrast, women practitioners with biotechnology backgrounds are close to reaching parity with men, with women comprising 41.4 percent of registrants having that technology background. Out of the gate, there is less than 15 percent of diverse registered practitioners in computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering, as compared generally to the gender parity among attorneys entering the practice of law. The lack of diversity in patent law impacts the number of patents granted to women and inventors from underrepresented groups. The process of filing a patent, explains Rogers, requires technical knowledge on the lawyer’s part but also requires a relationship between the lawyer and the inventor. Relationships that are much more difficult to build when there is very little common ground between them.
But why does diversity matter?
“Embracing diversity allows us to maximize talent,” says Rogers, adding, “Given the objectives of Qualcomm’s business, both to develop products and to create intellectual property that we license, we want to maximize talent. This is why we have a Diversity Task Force of senior leadership to review strategic programs and advise on best data-driven diversity and inclusion practices. This task force also explores innovative hiring and retention best practices for implementation throughout our company.”
I have heard from many at QTL that Rogers is a loyal ally and from my conversation, it is clear he genuinely cares about driving inclusion. Naturally, I want to know how he can get his team to follow him on this path. “I do not emphasize telling people what they should do. I prefer to lead by example,” says Rogers, “The principle is the same as not wanting to turn away talent. I am not an engineer; I am a lawyer, so why would I not want to have open discussions and take on ideas from people around me who I know are more knowledgeable on the subject than I am?” I think Rogers is onto something when it comes to getting buy-in for diversity and inclusion practices: diversity enhances you and doesn’t threaten you.
As my time with Rogers comes to an end, I put him on the spot and ask him to name three qualities that, over the years, he has seen women bring into a team. The answer comes quickly and Rogers says he could tell me exactly who is thinking of when he shares these three qualities, but he won’t: excellent listening skills, great attention to detail and a different mindset.
One last point Rogers wants to make sure people understand about making the innovation economy thrive and, with it, the US economy. “Diversity is paramount and we must accelerate initiatives both from the private and public sector that focus on encouraging women and other underrepresented groups to become involved in science and technology, become entrepreneurs, and get involved in the arc of innovation, including obtaining intellectual property rights,” says Rogers. And then he adds: “At the same time, however, we cannot undermine intellectual property rights or allow the cost of enforcing those rights to deter startups and entrepreneurs from obtaining and upholding their patents. Maximizing everyone’s innovation power from companies big and small is a good thing for society or the economy.”
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.