Spotlight on Commerce: Michelle K. Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)


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Michelle K. Lee
Michelle K. Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

Serving as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, I am in charge of one of the largest intellectual property (IP) offices in the world. I serve as a principal advisor to President Obama on domestic and international IP matters, and I provide leadership and oversight of the day-to-day management of the policy, budget, and operations for an agency with more than 12,000 employees.

I am incredibly proud of the work our employees do and the role this agency plays in protecting people’s ideas, which is essential to driving the United States’ innovation-based economy. A strong IP system contributes to maintaining a strong U.S. economy by providing inventors and companies the chance to develop their technologies, grow their businesses, and expand sales of their products.

Before joining the USPTO, I spent most of my professional career advising some of the country's most innovative companies on technical, legal, and business matters. I served as Deputy General Counsel for Google and was the company's first Head of Patents and Patent Strategy. My team and I helped build the company’s portfolio from handfuls of patents to over 10,500 in the span of eight short years.

I’ve always been intrigued by technology and inspired by innovation.

As a child who was born and raised in the Silicon Valley, I saw the power of innovation and intellectual property up close and personal. My parents were immigrants, drawn across the Pacific Ocean by the promise of the American Dream. My father was an engineer, and so were all of the dads on the street where I grew up. They worked for tech companies of all sizes, often founded by just one person with great ideas and an understanding about how to grow a business. Many of them had the experience of inventing something, patenting it, and using the protection that patent provided to obtain venture capital funding, hire employees, and begin producing and selling new products and services. Living in a community like that made an indelible impression on me, and I never had much doubt about what I wanted to do when I “grew up.”

So that was my inspiration for studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and working at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Hewlett Packard’s Research Laboratory. Eventually, I was drawn to the legal side of the tech profession. Whether as an engineer, or as a legal advisor for startups or major companies, I’ve always been a part of the innovation process. That continues today, as it’s my role to promote and encourage American innovation.

Throughout my career, I’ve often been one of a small number of women in the room and at the table. And, now, I’m truly honored to be the first woman Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. At the USPTO, we have created an environment where talent can thrive and where ability leads to advancement regardless of gender. While women represent less than 15 percent of executive officers in the private sector, nearly 40 percent of the USPTO’s executive officer positions are filled by women.

Reflecting on women’s history month, I’m inspired by women who paved the way in science and technology fields, such as Edith Clarke, who in the 1920s was one of the first professionally employed female engineers. I look forward to inducting her, as well as three other women, into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May. The work of these women in a wide range of fields proves the enduring strength of American innovation. Their success should inspire us to continue moving forward.

Recently, I called upon leaders in the tech industry to join me in a commitment to open up and expand opportunities for women in technology. Working together, we can better prepare more girls and young women to pursue careers in technology, and then empower them to thrive in those careers for the benefit of society and our economy. Innovation drives our economy, and I truly believe that unlocking and fully utilizing the innovative potential of women will be key to America’s continued success. 

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