My mom would be very proud that I write about the first woman to whom I reported in my professional career, Dr. Betsy Ancker-Johnson. Dr. Ancker-Johnson was one of the highest ranking political appointees during the Nixon administration, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Science and Technology. She was a plasma physicist with a half dozen or so patents of real noteworthiness, Phi Beta Kappa, the fourth woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the first woman vice president of an automotive company, mother of four, and many other accomplishments—you get the picture. Dr. Ancker-Johnson was famous for saying, “Work hard—no one owes you a living.”
From 1973 to 1974, I worked at the Office of Legislation at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), where among other things I was responsible for aspects of the Nixon administration’s attempt to rewrite the patent statute. In particular, I developed economic models that were presented to Dr. Ancker-Johnson for her use when the Departments of Commerce and Justice met with the Office of Management and Budget to “discuss” the merits of the new patent statute. During one of those meetings, she made a mistake during her presentation, one that mattered. With knees knocking, I stood up and said, “Madame Secretary, may I have a word with you?” But, instead of chastising me, she stepped aside, listened, and then corrected her statement. That’s not something many people at her rank would have done. She thanked me later and applauded my nerve. But it was not my nerve that was in play from my perspective, it was my sense from prior meetings that she always wanted to get it right. And she had what it took to make a public correction among her all-male colleagues at the time.
All this taught me something about myself: when you make a mistake that matters, have the chutzpah to correct it. Shortly thereafter, I was so proud to learn that I had earned Dr. Ancker-Johnson’s trust as she assigned a somewhat undercover project to me, which will remain a mystery, and I ended up with an appointment as a Deputy General Counsel to President Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board.
It is thanks to this luminary, Dr. Betsy Ancker-Johnson, that my courage (really my nerve) to pursue new professional aspirations—whether they fit the mold or not—was strengthened to make a difference in my life.