Expanding Opportunities For Black Americans In The Innovation Economy Is Essential
America’s competitiveness relies on maximizing the potential of each of our citizens.
November 05, 2021 at 4:40 pm
None of our lives would be the same today were it not for the achievements of Black inventors and innovators.
If you’re scrolling this column on a computer or tablet, it’s because Mark Dean invented the first color PC monitor and the first gigahertz processing chip.
If you used Skype, Zoom or FaceTime to check in on loved ones during the pandemic, it’s because Dr. Marian Croak invented Voice Over Internet Protocol, the technology that makes these video calls possible.
And if you’re like my kids and have fond memories of Super Soaker fights in the 1990s, that’s because of Lonnie Johnson, who came up with the idea while serving our country in the Air Force.
Yet, even today, the contributions of these incredible Black men and women, and many others like them, remain underappreciated by society at large. Innovation is not unique to any single racial or ethnic group, of course. But, while every American child grows up learning that Henry Ford invented the automobile or that Steve Jobs created the iPhone, Black inventors and their contributions have not been given their due recognition.
Not only is this a stain on our country, but it’s also holding us back.
America’s competitiveness relies on maximizing the potential of each of our citizens. But with Black inventors and innovators routinely overlooked, even in 2021, it’s no surprise that few Black Americans are pursuing careers where they can capitalize on their creativity and inventiveness. Black students who start their college careers majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics are more likely to switch concentrations or leave college than white students. From 1978 until 2018, fewer than one percent of all people granted patents were Black.
America will not succeed if so many potential innovators and inventors are pushed to the sidelines. The good news is that President Biden has a chance to do something about this. Recently, the President nominated Kathi Vidal as the new Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the agency with the most influence over our innovation economy.
It’s critical that, in the weeks ahead, the Biden administration make clear that they will make expanding opportunities for people of color a priority for the USPTO. Today, it lags far behind the curve in its approach to diversity. In fact, unlike many agencies, the USPTO still does not even take the basic step of collecting demographic data about the people who apply for patents. The next Director will need to make doing so a priority to make it easier for policymakers to measure and correct for the under-representation of people of color in the innovation economy. In addition, the new Director should make appointing people of color a priority for the upper levels of the USPTO. Personnel is policy, and it’s essential that people of color have a seat at the table at the USPTO.
Other challenges must be addressed to ensure the innovation economy works for all Americans:
● $147 billion was raised for startups in the first half of 2021, but only 1.2% of this total went to Black founders;
● Since the start of the COVID pandemic, 10% of Black and Latino families reported they were unable to afford prescription drugs to manage major health issues, a problem exacerbated by monopolies held by big pharmaceutical companies;
● Research shows the size of the American economy could be 3% to 4% larger, lifting the standard of living for all, if women and minorities were better represented in innovation.
It’s critical that the Biden administration get this right and bring a fresh approach and new viewpoints to help open doors for Americans who have been overlooked and left behind for too long. That’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a decision that will make America more prosperous at home and successful on the world stage.
Melissa Bradley is an entrepreneur, former presidential appointee and teaches at Georgetown University.