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By Lauren Schenkman
April 9, 2018
Patent lawyer Krystyna Colantoni still remembers the moment she fell in love with technology. She was a young child, and the cover had come off her father’s power drill. He showed her how the trigger sent the motor and gears into action to eventually spin the drill bit at the end. “I remember my brain hurting trying to follow all that,” she recalls, “but at the same time it whet my appetite for all things mechanical.”
Decades later, the 39-year-old patent lawyer is a partner and head of prosecution at Mei & Mark, LLP in Washington, D.C., working with clients in the automotive industry to patent new technologies on anything from tractor trailers and off-road vehicles to passenger cars. “It’s beautiful to me, looking at how the gears couple on a differential,” she says. “It’s just like looking at a power drill with my dad as a little girl. It’s that familiar.”
But it hasn’t been any easy road. Colantoni faced a male-dominated field. According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association’s 2017 Economic Survey of its members, only 14 percent of partners in intellectual property law firms are women. More broadly, only about 23 percent of partners in all law firms are women, the National Association for Law Placement's 2017 Report on Diversity shows.
“I have faced adversity every step of the way, trying to shuttle me off to something else,” Colantoni says.
One might even say her resilience can be traced to when Colantoni’s great-grandfather died in a coal mining accident in Pennsylvania in 1926. To support her family, Colantoni’s great-grandmother began working at a rug factory with automatic looms. “I remember my grandmother bragging about how her mom could work the first computers with the punch cards,” says Colantoni, who played with the stacks of cards at her grandmother’s house.
Pioneers like Colantoni’s great-grandmother have influenced her journey. But so have detractors. When it was time to declare a major in college, Colantoni wanted to go into science, but didn’t know which field. The adults she looked to for guidance, both male and female, told her that since she liked to cook, she might be good at chemistry. “It sounded logical. It didn’t sound sexist or belittling,” says Colantoni. But it did steer her away from mechanical engineering, which she says she still regrets not studying.
Still, going to college gave Colantoni the chance to take classes in biology, electrical engineering, and computer science. When she got to transition metal chemistry, she loved “envisioning the spin states and molecules connecting,” she says. She realized she had a real aptitude for science. “So it wasn’t just [that I’m] good in the kitchen.” But some of her male professors didn’t agree. “They didn’t think women belonged and I got graded down appropriately,” she says.
After graduating with a degree in biophysics from the University of Scranton, Colantoni joined a telecommunications start-up. This took her to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where she researched existing patents to see how the start-up’s technology differed. The experience piqued her interest in patent law. When the start-up went under like many others during the dot-com bubble, Colantoni became a patent examiner and worked at the Patent Office from 2002 to 2006. While she was there, she drew inspiration from older women colleagues whom she calls “trailblazers,” who had joined when there were even fewer women in the field. “They worked harder because they wanted to show that they could do what the men were doing,” she says.
After leaving the Patent Office, Colantoni went to law school and, armed with her on-the-ground experience, entered the field of patent law. Like the trailblazers at the Patent Office, she says, “I hung in there. I wanted it bad enough.” She has been at Mark & Mei since 2009. Her tenacity has paid off with a job that ignites her childlike curiosity. “Most days I get up and I can’t wait to work on this technology,” she says.
Colantoni also is a mom of two boys, ages six and eight. Her advice to female lawyers wondering how to fit motherhood into a career is to reach a place of stability and autonomy in your work so that the time off doesn’t rock your career. Then, she says, have a game plan for coming back after maternity leave. For example, soon after the birth of her second son, Colantoni went to observe a trial her team was working on.
But Colantoni also deflates the myth that “women can have it all.” She wakes up at four in the morning to begin work before taking her children to school. Even so, she says, she’s had to sacrifice some resume- and career-building activities because of motherhood. “It’s tough for me because I look at some of the stuff I had to pass up,” Colantoni says.
Colantoni’s advice to women blazing trails in male-dominated fields is to figure out your strength and stick with it. And when, inevitably, certain individuals treat you differently, “you have to be resolute that you’re going to endure where they don’t,” she says. In the end, it comes down to telling yourself, “I don’t care whether you think a woman should do this or not.”
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