Women’s Inclusion in STEM Entrepreneurship & Patenting and Trademark
The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) held a ‘Let’s Talk Business’ Women in STEM virtual roundtable on July 28, 2020. NWBC Chair Liz Sara provided an overview of NWBC’s 2020 policy priorities and introduced the roundtable moderator, ‘Women in STEM’ subcommittee member Sandra (Sandy) Robert, CEO of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). Ms. Sara and Ms. Roberts were also joined by Council Members Maria Rios, Barb Kniff McCulla, and the members of the ‘Women in STEM’ subcommittee—Dr. Susan Duffy, Dr. Marsha Firestone, and Subcommittee Chair Monica Stynchula.
More than 30 participants joined the STEM roundtable discussion representing women entrepreneurs and business owners, patent holders, government representatives, as well as other ecosystem builders in STEM. The group discussion focused on approaches to boosting female STEM entrepreneurship and women’s inclusion and participation in the patenting and trademark process. Overall, a variety of issues surfaced during the discussion including:
Sandy Robert opened the roundtable discussion by first noting the importance of recognizing the unique challenges faced by women innovators and entrepreneurs as they now look to reimagining their enterprise and pivoting in the current COVID-19 environment. Ms. Robert also emphasized the impact and significance of the current national conversation around achieving greater racial equity and inclusion—key focus areas for her own organization—AWIS. She called for more underrepresented populations to have a seat at the table.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Robert also underscored the realities that most professional and entrepreneurial women face—bearing most of the burden of balancing household, childrearing, elderly care, work and/or business management responsibilities. She noted that about 79% percent of AWIS members hold advanced degrees, 66% of AWIS members are at the mid-senior career level, and that while it is general common knowledge that female talent is out there, many organizations continue to struggle in recruiting and retaining more women.
Ms. Robert went on to underscore that certain cultural issues, gender-based bias, and even racism comprise just some of the unique barriers women and communities of color continue to face in work, business, and particularly in the STEM fields and innovation ecosystems. “Women have their expertise questioned much more frequently than men,” said Robert.
She also asked the group to really think about ‘levers of change’ that can be utilized to engage investors and ‘white professional males’ in STEM as well as reconsider the definition of STEM to effectuate positive change. Additionally, she asked the group to bring forth their thoughts and ideas of how to effectively engage more women so that they understand that career and business paths “don’t have to be so linear—that it is okay to have stops and starts.”
“Think about the problems you want to solve and the issues that need to be addressed… so let me start by asking the business owners in the group to describe your own journey to starting and growing a business? What barriers did you face and how did you overcome them?”
Rebecca Contreras[i], former NWBC Council Member, a patent holder, and CEO of an 8a and women-owned small business firm offering a “one stop shop” for complex organizational, human capital, and technology needs underscored the importance of women focusing on diversifying, expanding, and redefining their capabilities.
“I have been in the human resources field for years and came up with a software idea to solve complex workforce problems. My partner is a developer, but I never considered myself STEM-focused and had to really stand up for myself just to own my idea and co-patent it,” she said. “But you know, it takes a strong, bold personality to fight and wrestle with an equally strong, male-dominated IT culture to legally own your ideas. And there is a heavy monetary expense, which really just involves hiring the best lawyer. I didn’t have the tech background, but it was my workforce solution idea in the end, and so I hired the best to defend it,” she continued.
She also noted that whatever a woman’s expertise is, that expertise matters. And while there is a lot educational resources and intel “out there” to guide women on how to patent an idea, the cost is prohibitive to most, so making more grants available to women who cannot afford the high costs of patenting could be helpful. “The cost wound up being double of what I had planned—about $12,000—and our patent runway was about two and a half years.”
“I never thought of my company as STEM, but it is Ed-Tech,” noted a virtual reality game developer and founder of a media company “offering an ‘edutaining-inspiring’ (education/entertainment) mobile application platform for young girls of color ages five to nine” which provides them with “access to content and characters that they can see themselves in.” The company products include virtual reality story books, games, and animation.
She shared that she holds two degrees in criminal justice and marketing. “My background is project management and digital strategy and I have to align myself with all these different acronyms just to fit in,” she shared and also opined that STEM-related products and services fit squarely within the realm of marketing. “They work hand in hand. My first business was a marketing place for African Americans to celebrate their weddings. I raised my funds through pitch competitions. I also attempted crowdfunding and got a little traction, but not as much as I hoped,” she continued.
She also retold what she described as a “horrific” personal experience “going through the SBIR circuit”—getting contradictory feedback from different program managers, and being asked to resubmit a proposal that had been initially deemed innovative but was ultimately rejected.
“There is a lack of diversity for animation and games based on my market research, so I submitted a pitch for ‘GeoQuest’ through the National Science Foundation (NSF),” she said and punctuated only 0.3% of NSF funding goes to African American women.
“My project pitch was accepted in 3 days. I tapped into the listed resources in New York City that did not actually exist,” she said. “Look, I’m an innovator and developer, and what I needed help with was writing the proposal. I finally found organizations to assist me, but I was up against the deadline after all this time and having surgery. Someone finally helped with my SAMS form, but because the program managers switched I was asked to resubmit and I was rejected because the last manager said my proposal was not innovative, even though all the others had said it was,” she continued. This participant concluded her remarks by noting that ‘Phase Zero’ assistance is not readily available to adjunct professors.
Overall, she noted a lack of standardization surrounding the expectations for SBIR applications. Stage zero was not available in New York and assistance is not currently available outside our colleges and university.
The President and CEO of a group of three niche workforce development firms for scientific and technical professionals in the Pharmaceutical, Medical Device, Biologics, Diagnostics and Biotech industries shared that it took her 11 years to be “accepted” by her society of professionals. “My background is in linguistic archeology—my masters is in corporate communications. The last 5 years I have devoted to STEM apprentices, the majority of whom [over 50%] are women. I pivoted in my careers to build apprenticeships for biotech and food safety. I saw the opportunity to help newer graduates, returning mothers, and young veterans,” she said.
This roundtable participant shared how she led the creation of a food safety training academy mandated by a new set of laws with the aid of a federal grant program. “We received a grant to get the program going and we are looking at more,” she said and highlighted the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) ‘Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations’ (WANTO) grants, which help “recruit, train, and retain more women in quality pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, and encourages them to pursue apprenticeships and non-traditional occupations (NTOs).”
“My company is qualified for this grant because of the work that we do, but the DOL gives you less than a month to apply for it. Most do not have the money to hire a grant writer. You need to have the money and know it will take at least 60 days.” She added, “I never thought I would take federal money until I started this program.” She concluded by noting the challenges that women must overcome in terms of finding and applying for funding. “Here we are with a mission to solve it, but you cannot get to the resources. We are reality. We are not Washington.”
A founder and CEO of a software development and technology company with a background in software and weapons systems engineering shared her experiences in her field, which includes digital transformation, system of systems engineering, large-scale IT implementations, and inter-agency collaboration technology initiatives.
“My background is in systems engineering. I worked with large scale combat systems in the DOD. About a year ago, we launched a software and technology company. We do federal services software work,” she shared.
She shared that her role models were men growing up in a STEM environment. And she also suggested that women carry much of the domestic responsibilities at home and noted how the current pandemic has interestingly disrupted the culture in these industries for the better.
“I believe that what we are going through has been one of the greatest things that could happen, in a sense. One of the biggest barriers to entry was the idea that you want to be there for your family, and you recognize that this requires flexibility. There is a misconception that these careers are incompatible with what we want to do at home and now we see that it is possible to build in some flexibility.”
Council Member and Executive Director of the Babson College Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL) Dr. Susan Duffy emphasized the need to identify models of information-sharing, avenues for accessing funding, and programs that help more women from diverse backgrounds patent and commercialize their ideas. She then asked the group to share their thoughts on some of the specific challenges the participants’ have faced in patenting and commercializing their ideas.
The founder and CEO at a renewable energy innovator and integrator with projects that range from solar integration for fast charging microgrids to smart city LED lighting with gunshot detection and camera surveillance, shared that she fell into her line of work somewhat accidentally. “This is the first time I have thought of my company as being STEM. I am an industrial psychologist and have a master’s in liberal arts but worked in the basement with my dad building automated equipment.” She continued, “in school, they wanted me to be a librarian. Back in the day, they funneled us towards secretarial positions.”
She too shared similar experiences of working hard and investing considerable amounts of money to ensure she had the right to own her idea. “I co-patented a gunshot detector. It all started like a traditional bar conversation, putting ideas on a napkin. There were engineers on the gunshot side, and I was on the LED side. We went through the process and the attorney fees.” She then emphasized, “they didn’t want me on even though I had the idea and paid for the fees and equipment.” She suggested women not overlook the potential for a cross-pollination of ideas: “it helps you come up with tremendous potential for the expansion of your business.”
She concluded by sharing that she is now looking to start a STEM course because “more and more, the younger girls are getting more excited about STEM careers.”
The owner of a company specializing in organic design, build-to-print and build-to-spec poser solutions from power supplies to testing equipment and ancillary equipment also shared her experiences and perspectives. “I started out as a STEM graduate. I have my bachelor’s and doctorate in chemistry. Along the way, I started a manufacturing company. I have run this company for 23 years.”
She noted that STEM is a relatively new term and that girls sometimes turn off from that sort of terminology, suggesting an alternative approach to addressing educational, work, and entrepreneurial pipeline issues is to appeal to women’s and girls’ interests – because part of the problem is the word ‘STEM.’ “STEM was a word that came around long after I was in the sciences. People, especially girls, turn off from those words. So, I never thought about it that way. I just thought: What were my interests?”
An aerial pilot and co-inventor on 16 patents on aerial and smartphone technology who also serves as vice president of a credit union shared: “We consider ourselves a tech company with the heart of a credit union… [and] we are very supportive of women in enterprise innovation.”
With respect to her experiences in patenting her ideas, she added: “I had a supportive journey. We had patent attorneys that worked with us who helped format our ideas.”
She further shared that she was greatly influenced by her father and brothers who were in STEM, also noting that there were not many female role models influencing her as a STEM innovator and entrepreneur. “I hold pretty much all ratings as a pilot. I pivoted that career after 9/11 and turned it into an innovation career.” She further suggested that there should be improved or concerted efforts to promote more women in STEM and in innovation generally.
A regional economic specialist representing a center for regional economic advancement at a major university responsible for producing data-driven research on economic development in Upstate New York also participated in the conversation. She explained how her program’s work is centered on advancing entrepreneurial programs that connect entrepreneurs with grant capital and development opportunities.
She noted that her program “helps STEM women commercialize their innovations and overcome challenges of leading a growing technology-based business” by combining a curriculum with guided entrepreneurship. There is also an entrepreneurship fund with a grant component.
“We had about 40 women participate this year. Many are at the very early stage [of innovation]. For example, one inventor we talked to is a mother of three.” She noted the main issues they are seeing as barriers for women include the cost involved and “just not understanding the process at all.” Through the fund, grantees are provided with $5000 to support them in the commercialization process. The mother of three she cited in her example used her grant to cover attorney fees.
This participant echoed the importance of helping women overcome barriers that are currently preventing them from fully contributing their talent and ideas to the economy. She emphasized:
“The isocratic and bureaucratic nature of the process is intimidating.”
She too raised the significant cost of childcare inhibiting women’s ability to cover the high costs of patenting and commercialization of their ideas. Ultimately, the burden of childcare is born by women, only. This presents a strict barrier to innovation.
She also shared that her university has a $5,000 grant for inventors, the grant can be used to pay for initial attorney’s fees for applying for a patent.
The first roundtable participant to speak and a former NWBC Council Member was recently awarded a patent. She spoke again, emphasizing: “make sure you have the right attorney.”
Council Member Dr. Marsha Firestone who is the president and founder of the Women’s Presidents’ Organization (WPO)—a peer advisory group for women who own and lead multimillion dollar businesses noted—shared “we are a business education group with 142 chapters worldwide and take a tech approach to providing information of various aspects of a business.”
She noted the importance of networking and platforms that catalyze information-sharing. “Many of our members of our community are tech savvy, one of which is a participant of today’s roundtable… Many of the discussions [at WPO] are not only about providing expertise for development. Members share and learn from each other,” she added.
A participant who is in the process of getting a patent noted that her greatest barrier was finding investors to help fund her idea, after having mostly bootstrapped to develop her idea. “I have a patent pending. It started with a vision as a young girl after having to administer medication to my father since the age of 10 (she is now 40). This is a challenge because it is a medical device and the cost of patenting is so high. Everything I have done or funded is all me.”
She added: “To keep moving forward is a challenge with the patent pending. I am struggling to find the perfect partner or investor that know manufacturing and research. I used up all my savings on this.”
She also noted looking into SBIR but deciding on keeping her focus and own investment of capital on looking for a partner or other investor and caring for her three children.
Council Member Barbara Kniff-McCulla who is the owner and CEO of KLK Construction in Pella, Iowa—a contractor in the telecommunications industry—noted that access to broadband and childcare are some of the most significant issues women are dealing with in the U.S. “In Iowa, we are involved in addressing structural childcare deficits. Our governor started a ‘2020 Childcare Challenge Fund’—a matching grant program working with private entities and the public sector.”
“Iowa is missing out on 670 million annual GDP… [so] this childcare piece of the puzzle needs to be resolved,” she continued.
Kim Alton, Deputy Director of the Office of Governmental Affairs and Oversight at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) also joined the discussion. “Our country is missing out if we are not including everyone from different segments of society who have ideas,” she said.
She emphasized USPTO’s commitment to ensuring that women and minority communities have the information and resources that lead to commercialization success. “Within the past year, we have posted an ‘Are you new to IP?’ button —an interactive map to see what is available in your state.”
Deputy Director Alton also shared that from August 20th through the 22nd the agency would be hosting ‘InventionCON’—an event targeting independent inventors and entrepreneurs. She also announced a new upcoming report with updated data on issued patents starting in 2016 and going through 2017 and 2019. Additionally, in September 2020 the USPTO Director will be launching the ‘National Council for Expanding American Innovation’, which will focus on developing a strategy that includes voices from across industry and academia, as well as the public and private sectors.
“There is capital out there,” said a fragrance company founder and east coast chapter president of the National Association of Women’s Business Owners (NAWBO). “[But] the percentage of women that get venture capital is incredibly small. The percentage for women of color is even less,” she continued noting that there is a ‘systemic problem’ out there that does not support women in business.
“I was told by three attorneys that my product was not patentable. The average cost is between $10,000 and $20,000 just to get a patent. If it goes to court, then you just put a lot more zeros on the end of that to defend your patent!” The fact that women run the house, and raise the children, is unrecognized.
Council Member and CEO and Founder of the REUNIONCare, Inc. emphasized the importance of recognizing certain skills as ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’ skills. “Many women entrepreneurs are doing this as a second career and assume they cannot manage. There are a lot of skills that are organic to the way we live that need to be recognized as hard skills that will take us a long way.”
She also noted that there is more participation by women in certain industries, like healthcare. “Healthcare is a different animal because the majority are women. It is not the same for other fields.”
And, recognizing the experience of one roundtable participant, she opined on the SBIR program that “a lack of standardization on expectations can leave you subject to a whim.”
She helped close out the discussion by emphasizing the importance of tapping into women and girls’ passion to make the world a better place. “Women and girls want to solve real problems. They ask themselves, ‘How do I make something better?’”
[i] To facilitate candid and engaging conversations, the names and companies of roundtable participants are not disclosed. Exceptions are made for former Council Members who approve release of their identity. Current Council Members’ and government officials’ names are also disclosed.