The Innovator: Wynn Coggins, 52, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In 25 years, Wynn has moved up the ranks from patent examiner to now supporting and managing all administrative functions of a large government agency. She speaks to Vanity + Trade about the importance of mentorship and why it is a necessary means for our next generation of females.
Tell us about your background and what you do at USPTO.
I graduated with from Clemson University with a degree in Civil Engineering and in the 90’s, was hired to work at the USPTO. I have loved every minute of it! I started as a junior patent examiner but as time went on, I had opportunities to be promoted and was moved up in the ranks, eventually moving into management positions and becoming a member of the government Senior Executive Service. Although I’ve been at the USPTO over 25 years, I’ve been lucky to find new challenges every 3 to 4 years! My latest challenge was being asked to come over to the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer as the Deputy about 3 years ago.. My background has always been very technical and I understand very well how the patent office operates and how our external stakeholders react. But I’ve always been a “people person” and now as the Deputy CAO, I get to “flex those muscles” and I love it! It’s been a fantastic experience.
You’re extremely passionate about STEM education.
Yes, I find that there are challenges and opportunities being a woman in my industry. I can remember times in college when I was one of the few females in my engineering classes. It just made me want to work harder. I do a lot of speaking to kids about entering STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and one of the most important things I say to kids, both boys and girls, is that you absolutely have to stick with it. Especially with girls, I always tell them, “don’t let anyone tell you that engineering is just for the boys. You’ve got to stay strong, work hard, advocate for yourself.”
What has been one of your key elements of success?
I was never afraid to seek out help. I had a strong support group that included my teachers, friends, colleagues and family members. I was always looking to find a mentor and actively seek leadership positions, and increasing levels of responsibility. And I always did it with a positive outlook and resilience – that was key! Because things can and do go wrong – just monumentally wrong – and a positive outlook and a sense of humor are so important to eventually finding success!
What has been one of the most common misconceptions of women in the workplace?
Oftentimes we feel like we can do it all and asking for help sometimes can be viewed as a weakness. I actually think it’s a sign of strength. The more we can leverage the knowledge and skills of other people, the more well-rounded it makes us, and it sets the path for others coming behind us.
How has your experience with mentors impact your career?
I’ve had a number of really fabulous mentors. What’s interesting to me is that the mentors who were most impactful to me were those with vastly different personalities, perspectives and experiences. I had sought out female mentors but was drawn to my male mentors because they didn’t look, act or think like me and that actually broadened my way of thinking and reacting. It added more dimensions to my decision-making. I honestly learn something new everything day from everyone around me, from those above and below within my organization, and even from my kids! There are incredible opportunities everywhere to learn.
What advice do you have for female inventors?
We have been trying to increase the population of our female inventors and that has been a focus at the USPTO. We want our female population to know that they can innovate, that they have something to bring to the table, and contribute. We need to find our voice, find our financing and just do it. Don’t be afraid.
How do you define “success”?
It depends on whether I am at home or at work. I have an 8-year old son and 11-year old daughter and success for me is being able to balance home and work life – and recognize when things get “out of balance” and you need to course correct. Sometimes, success is just a day that goes well and my husband and kids still like me. Joking aside, in the professional sense, what makes me feel achievement is having a positive impact. People talk about “power” and its meaning, and to me, all of it is ultimately about having a positive impact: having a positive influence on people, contributing positively, valuing people and moving the agency in the right direction. At home, it is caring for and nurturing my family. Having both of those make me feel successful and very grateful.
Wow, that’s pretty powerful. So what’s the trick to having both?
Giving up on the guilt! Ask for help and find a good support system. As I took on more responsibility at work, my family was also growing at home. I have given a lot of thought, effort and tears on trying to be perfect and make it all happen, but I see now that it’s really about having the support system both at home and at work. At home, my support system is my husband, my kids, my parents and my friends. At work, my support system is my boss and my colleagues – we really do all support each other. I am a very grateful person and I say “thank you” a lot. I still sit down and write personal thank you letters when I can. Gratitude is key but also is recognizing that we all need help and to let go of that ego is so important.
What is your ultimate power suit?
I have a tendency towards the more classic designers. I used to wear a lot of very structured suits, but being 5’10, it can come across a bit intimidating. My first executive coach once asked me if I ever considered cardigan sweaters. At first I did not know how to react, but it taught me that perspectives can be defined from so many points of view, which is important in any setting, and it’s about understanding how to work with that. It was interesting that this was a comment made by a man -however he was just being helpful and trying to provide advice on how to soften things up. Needless to say, I don’t always wear a cardigan but sometimes I might have one in my rotation, especially if I have to have a tough conversation!
What surprises people about you?
People are always surprised when I come into work in jeans. They say, “Wow you wear jeans?” I am classic at work but in my home life, I am edgy and a little funky and all about my motorcycle boots. They’re great with skinny jeans.
What beauty products can’t you live without?
Eye cream, for when I am having sleepless nights and any lipstick that stays on! I’m usually so busy that I don’t have time to reapply!