Lenovo Sparks National Effort to Increase Diversity of Patent Holders in Tech

Jan 12, 2022 12:15 PM ET
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Efforts to increase diversity in a corporation are not new, and the payoff of creating a diverse and inclusive workforce has been shown time and time again. While many companies can agree on how a diverse and inclusive workforce functions overall, they often overlook a key question: On which teams and in which processes can diverse perspectives have the biggest impact? While Lenovo has focused its 2025 representation goals on diverse leadership, Jason Friday, Senior Counsel for Lenovo, has taken a different approach by measuring diversity by going straight to the place that defines new ideas: the patent program.

For many technology companies, their list of patented ideas and intellectual property serves as a valuable asset, protecting the unique innovations invented by their employees. However, many technology companies’ patents are a tangible and discrete way to measure who is delivering innovations, whose ideas are deemed worthy of a patent, and if – at the intersection of innovation and value – diverse voices are included in the process.

Jason Friday, an intellectual property attorney at Lenovo, started investigating this question. While he began working with data from Lenovo’s patent program to determine outcomes facilitated by him and his own team, he also collaborated with other global tech companies and found that the situation was not unique.

“At Lenovo, the data seemed to indicate a gating issue for diversity in inventorship,” said Carole Boelitz, Executive Director of Intellectual Property at Lenovo and sponsor of the Diversity in Inventorship program. “Innovation usually occurs in a team format, so we need to change our processes so that diverse voices are better represented in the final patent submission phases.”

With sponsorship and support from Lenovo’s Legal and Diversity and Inclusion teams, Jason has activated Lenovo’s group of master inventors (individuals who hold at least 20 patents at the company and serve on the patent review board), and has committed to driving bias awareness and mitigation to create change.

“I can’t help but think of my own son,” Jason said when asked what inspires him to take on the complex problem. “He’s incredibly curious and talented with math and science, but also incredibly shy about sharing those talents. Of course we want to make sure that gender and race are better represented in our innovations, but we also know the next big idea can come from anywhere. It’s really about making sure these processes are built to serve everyone, not just those who are familiar with the process or are already empowered to participate.”

While collaborating with the patent program, Jason also began working with Women in Lenovo Leadership (WILL), the employee resource group that fosters advancement of women in Lenovo’s workforce. Bridgett Rogers, Lenovo’s WILL Chair, a leader of Lenovo’s Product Diversity Office, and Director of Customer Experience in the Cloud Software team immediately joined the initiative. Four members of her team began a women-focused patent ideation group, working not just to increase output of patentable ideas from women employees, but also to dispel the myth that you must be an engineer in order to create patentable ideas.

Leveraging her leadership with Lenovo’s Product Diversity Office, Rogers is part of a small group building out processes to include Lenovo’s female workforce in more product innovation. “Women face unique challenges in their day-to-day, leading to different perspectives and pain points with the most ubiquitous tasks and items in a day. By highlighting womens’ experience with these pain points, we can spark new and innovative ideas,” commented Rogers. Whether a new idea or a solution for a pain point, collaboration with WILL has quickly created a pipeline of new ideas from women at Lenovo.

“People can get intimidated and think that an innovation has to be radically different to be patentable,” said Jason. “In fact, most patents are incremental innovations and improvements. On top of that, they’re functioning as forecasts for what may not be relevant today, but could one day be critical in the market.”

While working with Bridgett and her teams to increase the pipeline of women’s submissions for ideas, Jason has continued to facilitate industry-wide collaboration on the issue of inventor diversity with the ‘Increasing Diversity in Innovation’ initiative he led with Jeremiah Chan and Charu Kurani from Facebook’s Patent team (with support from the US Intellectual Property Alliance). Thirty-five companies, many of them global tech companies like Lenovo and Facebook, have pledged to understand and address the issue of underrepresented inventors. While Jason believes Lenovo’s holistic approach is helping to focus a solution at the patent submission phase, the collaborative effort helps companies address their unique pain points and share best practices for overcoming issues through quarterly meetings.

“We’re committed to taking a data-based approach, and through that we know that there isn’t one solution that will fit every organization,” said Jason. However, as has been the case at Lenovo, where there’s a spark of a solution, with the right mix of support and collaboration, an organization committed to innovation can quickly take steps to make innovation more inclusive.