Q&A: María José Sánchez Rey
Career series: Laura Schoppe, Fuentek
StockEU / Shutterstock.com
Elaine Drager, head of IP and asset strategy at Nokia, is not afraid of being the proverbial zebra in a herd of giraffes. Here, she tells WIPR about her childhood ambition to pursue robotics, and her dislike of declarations of “success” in the gender diversity arena.
My career path has been a journey of problem-solving and innovation. I jokingly tell people that I have been with Bell Labs (Nokia Bell Labs) since birth in some ways. My dad was a Bell Labs engineer, as were many of the fathers in my small suburban town. I grew up going to the laboratories where he and his peers would demonstrate the latest experiments, his patents were framed and hung in our basement, and he brought work home—including a dial-up modem terminal via which I logged into the network and played computer games with other engineers on the weekend. I knew I wanted to be an engineer. After a trip to Disney World in the 1970s, I planned to pursue robotics, and to work for Bell Labs.
Not many young women pursued the field of electrical engineering. Many people, particularly parents of science-oriented girls, have asked me how and why I selected a field of study not many girls chose. The bottom line is I rejected the ideas that girls were not scientists—my mother was a zoologist—and I rejected the idea that boys were better than girls at science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
I loved engineering school, and work. During my technical studies, I worked as a summer engineer at Bell Labs and an aeronautics communication company. At university, I took my one first-year elective class in a non-technical field - law. To me, law was a different type of engineering, determining solutions for a set of facts, mapping analogous solutions to analogous facts and innovating novel solutions for unique facts —problem-solving and innovation, which I already loved. I was inspired to take all the law electives my university offered. Even though I was a technical recruit, my summer employers both generously introduced me to their in-house teams and their outside counsel. Someone suggested I explore patent law.
Senior year, not entirely sure what path I wanted, I pursued job opportunities including ones where the first assignment was to get a graduate degree, as well as law school admission. At the last minute, I looked at my options, and selected the opportunity I thought I could not recreate in a year if I decided I made a huge mistake—attending Duke University School of Law.
At Duke, at the time, you could count the technically trained law students in my class on one hand. I remember feeling like the proverbial zebra in a herd of giraffes, and very much envied the ease with which my humanities-trained classmates contextualised cases with historical or political events.
My first summer, during a legal recession when I was told there was no chance of landing a summer associate job in New York City as a first year law student, again I rejected that advice. I leveraged my unusual technical background and my love of innovation, and got a job at one of the leading IP firms. It was not at all by coincidence—that firm represented Bell Labs.
“We can raise expectations of men to take parental leave, and curb expectations that go along with the women-as-caretaker notion.”
I spent my time in ‘big law’ gaining tremendous experience, from depositions to trials and opinion letters to prosecuting a few patents. I worked with some of the greatest IP minds of their times on matters ranging from microprocessors to mass flowmeters to what we would now call user interfaces.
One of my favourite cases was for a technology client (pagers) against the National Basketball Association (which asserted that it “owned” the scores of a game during the game).
Eventually, an IP litigation job opened at a company that I always knew I would work for, and after many corporate reorganisations, I still do. I am privileged to work with award-winning engineers and scientists who change our world with their innovations.
I hold a strategy role which, at its heart, is using the experiences of the past to inform present decisions, select paths for the future, and provide proper return on innovation investments.
Not knowing what projects or problems will be on the table to tackle next and working with some of the best minds in their industries to do so.
Challenging business cycles create unusual and sometimes unexpected pressures of all kinds. Focusing on the ones that are within control and accepting that some are not is hard.
I think so, but I didn’t know they were barriers at the time, and they were overcome largely by my ignoring them in pursuit of my interests.
For example, I remember walking into a courtroom with all male lawyers who introduced themselves and greeted each other, but not me. I walked over to the bailiff and introduced myself as in-house counsel. When I turned back, about two dozen sheepish lawyers were lined up to shake my hand too.
Hands down, it’s raising three amazing young women with my husband in this crazy world. One is going into public health, one mechanical/aeronautical engineering, and one finance.
Everyone can teach you something, and no-one is less important than you. Some of my greatest learnings came from some very generous people who told me I was the first attorney ever to ask for their input.
Remarkable leaders: I love coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team, and former Ford and Chrysler head Lee Iacocca as both a businessman and a philanthropist crusader for a cure for type 1 diabetes.
In the legal world, my heroes include former Judge Helen Nies of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, other women of the federal bench, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court.
Last but by no means least, there is the next generation of warriors such as the activist and youngest Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
I have been a diner waitress (yes, like the movies). I think everyone should wait tables or pump gas for at least some portion of their working experience to understand serving a wide variety of people.
Declarations of “success” in the gender diversity and gender pay equity arenas. We simply are not there yet. We’re making great steps, but we have a way to go. Also, we need to recruit and involve more majority sponsors and champions who believe. They are out there!
Until there is representative diversity of all kinds at all levels, more needs to be done. More honest looking in the mirror when assessing, more outreach to underrepresented populations, and maybe even disproportionate hiring and development in those areas are needed.
There are many ways we can provide equal access to the meritocracy. For example, we can raise expectations of men to take parental leave, and curtail the expectations that go along with the women-as-caretaker notion.
I mentor young people about treating each other as equals, and generally advocate against gender stereotyping. When my three daughters were little, they pursued whatever they were interested in and we actively corrected subliminal and overt messaging that was more gender-specific.
"Everyone can teach you something, and no-one is less important than you."
At work, I insist on representation by outside counsel to include diverse team members (nationality, gender, experts, and so forth) without sacrificing quality.
I participate in or have served as a speaker for a number of women’s forums, targeting law, IP, cross-disciplinary business and even investing, such as ChIPS, Women in IP Network (WIN), The Fourth Floor, and Big Careers Little Kids.
I have been a girls’ soccer coach, a girl scout leader, a robotics advisor, a science advisor, and a summer intern advisor to girls and young women of all ages.
Elaine Drager, Nokia, innovation, gender diversity, Nokia Bell Labs, career series, diversity