Headshot of Kathi Vidal

Q&A with Kathi Vidal: Champion of Innovation and Underserved Communities

Aug 1, 2022

by Shelley O’Brien, Chief Marketing Officer, AWIS

Kathi Vidal serves as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) – America’s Innovation Agency.

As the chief executive of the USPTO, she leads one of the largest intellectual property (IP) offices in the world, with more than 13,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $4 billion. She is the principal IP advisor to the President and the Administration, through the Secretary of Commerce, and is focused on incentivizing and protecting U.S. innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity. She leads an agency whose mission is to help American workers and businesses compete and collaborate, especially in ground-breaking technologies and across all demographics. As Director of the USPTO, Vidal is working to expand American innovation for and from all, and to bring more ideas to impact, including serving as the Vice Chair of the Council for Inclusive Innovation (CI2), alongside Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo and the Council members.

Congratulations on your appointment as Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)! You now lead one of the largest intellectual property (IP) offices in the world, with more than 13,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $4 billion. What unique perspectives do you bring to this role? What are your plans to incentivize and protect U.S. innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity?

Thank you. Every new Director brings a fresh perspective to the role.

I have a three-part approach. First, I want to go back to “first principles” of ensuring that our IP system works for its intended purpose of incentivizing and protecting innovation for the good of the country—to create jobs and generate economic growth— and to solve the world’s biggest problems. We have to do this while minimizing any behavior that thwarts or does not advance these goals. Second, I want to help make the innovation ecosystem more accessible to everyone, including those who have been traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, technology, engineering, and the broader innovation sector of the economy. And, third, I am working with the great people at the USPTO and in Congress and with all the stakeholders directly involved in patents and trademarks to maximize the impact of our efforts.

I am excited to serve as Vice-Chair of the Council for Inclusive Innovation (CI2), sitting beside Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who is the Chair. With support from the Council, we are currently working on a national strategy for expanding innovation that focuses on tapping into the strength of our nation’s diversity and increasing the opportunities for all Americans to participate in innovation. We are considering programs aimed at expanding and broadening the universe of inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. We recently rolled out a new webpage on inclusive innovation that provides a central location for information about our initiatives that advance equity in innovation. We are also actively working to expand pro bono legal services to innovators throughout the country. I look forward to announcing additional initiatives in the coming months.

You grew up in a military family and spent your childhood on military bases in the United States, Panama, Germany, and the Azores islands (an autonomous region of Portugal). What drove you to study electrical engineering? How has your STEM background prepared you for your current role?

I love all science. When I was in college, I took organic chemistry during a summer term, even though it wasn’t necessary for my degree. In high school, I had an oscilloscope in my bedroom that I bought at a garage sale. I also enjoy the arts, writing, and photography.

Two things drove me into electrical engineering. The first was a conversation with my high school guidance counselor, who told me there were not many women in engineering and urged me to pursue a career in that field. Second, when I was a mathematical physics major in college, I was told that electrical engineering was the hardest curriculum because it included aspects of both mechanical and computer engineering. Whether that is true or not is a different matter, but I like a challenge, so I chose electrical engineering on that basis.

In terms of my current role, I understand many of the struggles and dynamics surrounding innovators. I have had numerous ideas of my own that I have wanted to patent. I have also represented many individual inventors, from helping them secure patents to helping them defend their hard-earned investments. I do not claim to know all the struggles of inventors, so I believe it is important to hear the personal challenges they have with the IP system so that we can solve them.

You designed one of the first AI systems for aircraft, as well as aircraft and engine-control systems that continue to keep our military safe today. With these successes in your career, why did you make the decision to study IP law? Did you consider obtaining a PhD instead? What was the deciding factor?

When I was pursuing graduate studies in AI, I was working toward an advanced degree—either a master’s or a PhD. The deciding factor was that my PhD dissertation would be on a topic that was sensitive to national security and could not be published. As you know, dissertations must be published, and for good reason: we want new information to be shared and for people to build on the ideas of others. Because my work could not be published, I pursued and obtained a master’s degree with a thesis that could be kept confidential.

I love science and technology, and I enjoyed working in AI. I also really enjoyed going through General Electric’s Edison Engineering Development Program, where every six months, I was presented with new leadership and new scientific challenges. Pursuing a law degree and subsequently practicing in the field of IP gave me a chance to learn and work in a wide variety of scientific disciplines and technologies that were extremely interesting but which were not available to me as a practicing engineer.

A group of several men and 3 women in an office in the 80s

Director Vidal’s Edison Engineering class in the 1980s (Director Vidal is seated). Director Vidal was one of only two women (plus an admin) in the program.

 

Women in both electrical engineering and law report having been the only woman in the room. Did you ever experience (or witness) gender bias or harassment during your schooling or career? What challenges have you had to overcome?

I once heard the saying, “If you have a brain, you have bias.” It is the shortcut our brain takes, using pattern recognition to help make decisions. The question for me is how we deal with that and what we do—as leaders—to ensure that everything we do is inclusive. I am working on that both in the innovation ecosystem and within the USPTO itself.

We need to find ways for everyone to achieve success and realize their potential as their own authentic self. I had an “ah ha” moment when I spoke at a conference I helped organize for women in IP. I was on stage expressing my passion for the first committee print on a bill that was to become the America Invents Act. After I spoke, a number of the women in attendance said they had never seen me so lively and passionate. I realized that, without thinking about it, I had previously modeled my behavior after the male leaders I was exposed to. I realized that nobody had asked me to do that—to not be authentic and true to myself. But I had done it, nonetheless. Since then, I am “myself” when I speak and interact with others, and I encourage everyone to do the same.

The National Science Foundation has reported that 53% of PhDs are awarded to women, yet only 13% of inventors listed on U.S. patents are women. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research predicts that, given these statistics, without a direct, concerted effort, we will not reach gender parity until the end of the century. People of color are also significantly underrepresented among patent owners. What factors contribute to this disparity? Why is diversity so important for innovation and the country?

It comes down to access and support. We need to meet people where they are and teach them the advantages of using the protection provided to them by patents and trademarks as a bridge between the lab and the market. I will say that one set of statistics gives me the confidence that we can and will do better. When we reach people where they are and provide them with free legal services, we reach a diverse group of innovators. Whereas only 13% of inventors named on patents are women, 41% of those who avail themselves of our pro bono services are women. Furthermore, 30% of our pro bono customers identify as African American, 14% as Hispanic, 5.6% as Asian American or Pacific Islander, and 1.4% as Native American. Innovation is everywhere and in everyone. We need to be a catalyst for unleashing the potential in every American.

Regarding the importance of diversity for innovation and the country, one study by Dr. Jennifer Hunt at Rutgers University—titled “Why Don’t Women Patent?”—estimates that closing the gender gap in patents could increase the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by 2.7%. Achieving greater representation of all currently underrepresented racial and geographic groups in the IP ecosystem will have an even greater impact on the U.S. economy. As to the global economy, one study by the International Labor Organization indicates that closing the gender gap in the workforce could unleash an additional $5.3 trillion in global GDP.

Vidal smiling as she runs in a marathon

Director Vidal completing the Humpy’s Marathon in Alaska. Photo credit: Heather Cowans

 

What are your goals for creating more opportunities for diverse inventors to enter the field? Are you partnering with any organizations to make this happen?

Through CI2, we have partnered with organizations in each sector of the innovation ecosystem. We have members from industry, academia, government, and other professional organizations. Our Council reflects the diversity and inclusion that we are looking to realize in the innovation community. We also team with the National Inventors Hall of Fame on Camp Invention and with educators throughout the country on K–12 innovation programming. We work with the Small Business Administration and other organizations to make sure we are meeting people where they are, in their communities. We work with the World Intellectual Property Organization and the four other large IP organizations in the world (collectively IP5) and industry to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And when I travel to various states, I meet with the governors’ offices. Our goal is to no longer have to focus on support for those underrepresented in the innovation ecosystem because everyone will have a seat at the lab table.

How has the pandemic affected patent applications at the USPTO?

The USPTO continued to be productive despite the continued impact of the global pandemic. For our fiscal year 2021 ending last October, we were forecasting a decline of 4% in patent applications, but we ended the year with a much smaller decrease in filings of 0.4%, to 651,000. It is only the second time in the last 20 or more years where there was a decline, the other being in 2009 during the financial crisis, when patent applications plunged by 9%.

So being almost flat in the number of patent filings during the height of the pandemic was positive news for the IP system and for the U.S. economy. It meant that people were still innovating, even through the shutdowns.

Last year, we also surpassed the 11 million patents mark. We added 1 million patent grants in only 35 months. This was a record clip that was almost 10 times faster than 50 years ago in 1972, when it took 316 months to add an additional 1 million patents.

On the trademark side of our operations, the pandemic generated a massive surge in filings, an increase of 30% in fiscal year 2021 over 2020, to 948,000. This growth was due to the unprecedented increase in online buying and the pent-up desire of Americans to start their own businesses.

We continue to see strong growth in patent applications in the emerging technologies, especially in AI, where the number of patents granted on an annual basis has increased by 150% over the past 18 years, from 30,000 in 2002 to almost 80,000 annually in 2020. AI is penetrating more than 50% of the technology sectors we review in our patent operations, and AI now represents about 17% of all utility patent applications.

Do you know what percentage of USPTO leaders are women? Do you envision this will increase now under your leadership? What are the skills that you desire most for members of your team?

We do not yet have enough women in leadership positions at the USPTO. Since my first weeks on the job, I started working with the incredible people at the USPTO to make sure that when we think about someone for a promotion, project, or open position, we not only consider the first person who comes to mind, but also anyone else who is similarly situated—that we think not only about those who raise their hands, but also about those who are equally qualified but who may not volunteer. We are being creative, so everyone has an opportunity to be their best self. We are revisiting all our job announcements, job descriptions, and criteria for advancement. We are forming a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. And we are looking for outside resources and partnerships to make sure we are implementing the best practices that already exist across government and industry. I am confident we can make real change in bringing a broader group of individuals into our management ranks.

Vidal crouching to take a photo of kids in South Africa

Director Vidal, who has a passion for photography, capturing photos while in South Africa where she was mentoring a woman who owned an orphanage near Johannesburg as part of the Fortune Most Powerful Women – State Department – Vital Voices global mentoring program. Her mentee was Susan Zakhe Rammekwa who founded Tshepang Programme for Orphaned and Vulnerable Children.

 

What advice do you have for women and girls in science and STEM? What do you wish someone had told you early in your career?

Don’t sweat the little things. The first time I saw La Femme Nikita, the one line that stood out to me was: “I never did mind about the little things.” I’ve always tried to live by that line and to not sweat the little things. Now, when I do something I wish I had done differently, I realize that it was not my finest moment, but I cannot take back the past. If you hold yourself to high standards, then you will always revisit your actions and assess the effect they have on others. This way, you can learn from them and improve. Do that without sweating them. Also, explore your passions outside of work. Exercise both your right and left brains and pursue athletic and other team activities. They will make you more balanced and you’ll bring more to work and to life.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

We are all here for each other. Madeleine Albright once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” But I say, “There is a special place in heaven for women who help other women.” It is not just about helping other women; it is also about helping anyone who has potential that can be unleashed and finding ways to do that both on a one-on-one basis and on a much larger scale.

Read the new issue of AWIS Magazine for more stories of inspiring women in science. Join AWIS to access AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.