Increasing Native American representation in STEM and innovation

Common blog of US Patent and Trademark Office and the management of economic development

This Month, the US Department of Commerce celebrates Native American innovators and entrepreneurs. Agencies across the Department of Commerce, including the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Economic Development Administration (EDA), offer a range of tools and resources to support all inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs, including those in underrepresented communities like Native Americans .

Tara Astigarraga, master inventor at IBM

With the help of IBM mentors and her first patent in 2008, Tara Astigarraga, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is helping younger women and men from underrepresented backgrounds see opportunities for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math ( STEM). Born and raised in Arizona and part of Native Americans through her father, she is now an IBM Master Inventor, named on more than 80 patents for a variety of innovative storage, networking, security and blockchain solutions.

Speaking about the importance of mentoring, Astigarraga said: “When I started, I had a really great mentor [IBM] from the Native American community. She was the leader of our diversity group at the time. Her name is Michele Morningstar … And she immediately drew me into the diversity group there and brought me together with all the other people at IBM.”

Astigarraga is passionate about increasing the representation of Native American communities and other underrepresented groups in STEM subjects. “When people talk about STEM activities or how to build pipelines and get people involved,” says Tara, “they’re usually talking about the Black and Hispanic communities and even women. But Native American communities are rarely mentioned because when you round that data, we’re rounded to zero and we’re not even included in those conversations.”

She also speaks openly about her struggle with a challenge that’s all too common for young people, particularly those from a background traditionally underrepresented in STEM: imposter syndrome. Working with young students, particularly girls, young women, and members of other traditionally underrepresented groups such as Native Americans, allows Tara to be an example of a successful engineer that they can see and relate to. Read more about Tara Astigarraga in the USPTO’s story, Journeys of Innovation. And learn about the USPTO’s inclusive innovation efforts, resources supporting all inventors and entrepreneurs, and the Women Entrepreneurs Initiative just launched with the Department of Commerce.

Ecosystem development to support future innovators

Through Economic Development Administration (EDA) programs, the Department of Commerce supports the inventors and entrepreneurs who are following in Astigarraga’s footsteps by working with tribal leaders to develop a robust commercial ecosystem that cultivates and nurtures talent in America’s Indigenous communities.

With President Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARPA), the EDA recently completed the distribution of $100 million in funding through the Indigenous Communities Program, a major investment initiative created to help tribal governments and related organizations in the Planning and executing economic development projects to build economies to support the future, including creating opportunities for Native American innovators seeking high-paying jobs in STEM fields.

For example, the Standing Rock Renewable Energy Authority is planning, evaluating and designing the Anpetu Wi wind farm with EDA support. This project will help diversify the local economy and increase the energy independence of this tribal community. Meanwhile, the Picuris Pueblo in New Mexico is building the Picuris Vocational Training Center to improve the skills of the local workforce to secure quality employment opportunities. These projects, and dozens of others like them, are helping Alaskan tribes and Native American villages find a path to economic success that accelerates the achievements of new generations of Native American innovators.

Expanding opportunity and creating an economy that works for all Americans is central to the Department of Commerce’s mission and strategic plan. The USPTO and EDA are proud to join all trade offices in celebrating the Native American community and recognizing their significant contributions to our nation’s economy, competitiveness and growth.