Sabra Truesdale, associate general counsel for intellectual property at Western Digital, has always carved her own path. Attending a public high school with a focus on humanities, it was difficult to find STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)-related opportunities.
“We didn’t have a lot of STEM classes—no engineering, and no computer science,” she said. While Truesdale participated in the music program, she also forged an aptitude for mathematics. She excelled in her studies and pushed herself to take advanced classes whenever possible.
When it came time to think about college, Truesdale turned her eye to some of the most prestigious universities in the country. From her point of view, that seemed like the obvious next step but ultimately opened her eyes to the challenges she would continue to face as she charted her career through STEM fields.
“Up until then, gender never really came up,” she recalled.
Against the backdrop of affirmative action, she accepted an offer to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As the daughter of a humanities teacher and a journalist, it was a crucial grant from MIT that made her education affordable. She chose mathematics as her major and loaded her schedule with math courses. At first, she breezed through, but eventually things became harder.
As courses became more abstract, math began to lose its charm for Truesdale, and she decided to change her major to computer science. Truesdale didn’t have as much access to computers in high school as her peers did, so she leveraged the immense resources afforded by the university to catch up.
Her advisor at MIT, a woman, offered the mentorship and exposure she needed to overcome impostor syndrome and gain confidence. Truesdale also found support through women in computing groups on campus, like the Systers organization, founded by Anita Borg.
“That was the first time that I realized that women in computing was a specific group of people, not just at MIT but across the country,” she said, “and that I was a part of it.”
Truesdale found success in this new academic direction. She secured internships and was accepted into a five-year bachelor’s and master’s in Engineering program through the university. Despite all those positives, she had doubts about her future.
“My junior year, I sat back and asked myself, ‘What am I going to do after I graduate? I enjoy learning about computer science, but I don’t want to program and debug all day,’” she said. As she considered her options, her mind drifted back to childhood. Truesdale’s father reported on the local courts and sometimes took his daughter to work. Truesdale found herself fascinated by lawyers and the justice system at that young age, and she wondered if she could combine that fascination with law with her computer science curriculum.
Truesdale began scouring the MIT catalog for any courses connecting her current studies to this new path. She knew she was onto something but couldn’t find the proper framework, so she petitioned her department to craft her own concentration of study within computer science. Eschewing the advanced algorithm courses of her peers, she buried herself in this new fascination: computers, law, and policy.
Upon the completion of her M.Eng. in electrical engineering and computer science, Truesdale accepted an offer to the UC Berkeley School of Law to obtain her Juris Doctor and add the missing piece to her ongoing puzzle.
“The summer after my first year, I worked in a general practice firm that served high-tech companies, and I tried a lot of different things,” she said. “I found that I really liked patent prosecution [drafting patent applications and getting them issued as patents]. I liked learning about the technologies, and I liked law. Combining the two was a perfect fit for me.”
Truesdale graduated and earned herself a placement at that same law firm. As she gained experience, Truesdale realized that she wanted to focus on the technology and not on becoming a partner. So, she started looking for a role in a Silicon Valley high-tech company.
Truesdale found a job at HGST (acquired by Western Digital in 2012), initially focusing on managing the company’s hard disk drive (HDD) patent portfolio. As the company’s intellectual property (IP) expanded following the integration of HGST and Western Digital, and later with the acquisition of SanDisk, so did Truesdale’s role.
Today, Truesdale helps shepherd the stable of Western Digital inventors through the patent process. She helps decide which inventions are better suited for patent protection versus trade secret protection and works with inventors to clarify or modify their ideas if they hew too close to existing technology.
Her other focus is She Invents, an internal program launched to combat the underrepresentation of women in the patent process. After a 2019 study from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) found that despite accounting for 20% of employees in the industry, women comprised only 10% of inventors, Truesdale’s supervisors approached her with the opportunity to work on the issue.
Under her guidance, Western Digital has seen an impressive 80% increase in female participation in its patent program from FY 2020 to FY 2022.
“I want to get women more involved so that they can reap the benefits of this process. Not just the monetary benefits, but the professional opportunities as well,” Truesdale said. “Men get all these benefits and recognition because women just aren’t participating in the process. I want to level the playing field.”
Leveling the playing field, indeed equity, has become a focus for Truesdale. “After I paid off all my student loans, I got the idea in my head that I wanted to pay that grant back,” she said, “because someone else might need it.”
Truesdale and her husband created an endowed scholarship at MIT, where the interest helps pay tuition for young women from public high schools. Just like Truesdale.
“That’s what I really wanted,” she said. “I wanted to help someone like me.”