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None of our lives would be the same today without the accomplishments of black inventors and innovators.
If you scroll through this column on a computer or tablet, it’s because Marc Dean invented the first color PC monitor and the first gigahertz processing chip.
If you’ve used Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime to monitor loved ones during the pandemic, it’s because Dr Marian Croak invented the 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, it’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 underestimated by society as a whole. Innovation is of course not unique to one racial or ethnic group. But, as 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 due recognition.
Not only is it a stain on our country, but it also holds us back.
America’s competitiveness depends 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 math are more likely to change concentrations or drop out of college as white students. From 1978 to 2018, less than one percent of all people allowed the patents were black.
America will not succeed if so many innovators and potential inventors are pushed aside. The good news is that President Biden has a chance to do something about it. Recently the president appointed Kathi Vidal as the new director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the agency with the most influence on our innovation economy.
It is critical that, in the coming weeks, the Biden administration make it clear that it will make expanding opportunities for people of color a priority for the USPTO. Today, she is very late in her approach to diversity. In fact, unlike many agencies, the USPTO doesn’t even take the basic step of collecting demographic data on people who apply for patents. The next director will need to make this a priority to make it easier for policymakers to measure and correct the under-representation of people of color in the innovation economy. In addition, the new director is expected to make appointing people of color a priority for the higher levels of the USPTO. Personnel is a policy, and it is essential that people of color have a seat at the USPTO table.
Other challenges must be addressed to ensure that the innovation economy works for all Americans:
● $ 147 billion was raised for startups in the first half of 2021, but only 1.2% of that total went to black founders;
● Since the start of the COVID pandemic, 10% of black and Latino families reported they could not afford to buy prescription drugs to deal with major health problems, a problem exacerbated by the monopolies held by the big pharmaceutical companies;
● Research shows the size of the US economy could be 3-4% larger, raising the standard of living for all, if women and minorities were better represented in innovation.
It’s critical that the Biden administration gets it right and brings a fresh approach and new perspectives to help open doors for Americans who have been neglected and left behind for too long. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a decision that will make America more prosperous at home and more prosperous on the world stage.
Melissa Bradley is an entrepreneur, former presidential nominee, and teaches at Georgetown University.