By Jennifer Bryon Owen
While writing her dissertation in neuroscience, Susanne Hollinger (J.D. ’08), now head of patents for The Coca- Cola Company, discovered something. She was about to become the world’s expert on one specific protein.
“I am driven by being interested in lots of different things, ” Hollinger said. “I went to graduate school for neuroscience because that studies a whole array of different topics. But I was becoming more and more focused.”
Not sure this was for her, Hollinger did what is indicative of her problem-solving style. She talked and listened to established researchers, gleaning what worked for her.
“I spend time talking to the people who are at the next stage of their career and are successful at it. I try to gauge if their life and the things they enjoy, or don’t enjoy, fit me,” she said. “I try to make sure I’m not only doing what I want in the moment, but that I see the end of the road and it’s what I want.”
This process led her to patents, which incorporate her interests—advocacy and diverse experiences.
“As a patent attorney, you work on whatever is put in front of you. It can be scientifically diverse,” she said.
While pursuing her law degree at night, she worked as a patent agent for King & Spalding and gained experience doing something she loved.
For Coca-Cola, Hollinger is in charge of their global patent portfolio as well as their patent strategy in the United States and internationally.
“We have innovations coming out on a regular basis. We’re constantly launching products or equipment all over the world,” she said. “With those, we have to make sure we have aligned all our risk management plans appropriately, we have the right contracts in place and we’ve educated the local staff so they understand patent issues in their jurisdiction.”
As a problem solver, she drives toward practical solutions and isn’t afraid to go out on a limb.
“I do a good amount of listening and try to make whatever I’m suggesting meet as many needs as possible,” she said.
Throughout her career, she’s had challenges similar to most women’s: balancing all parts of one’s life, being overlooked, being labeled “aggressive.” Again, she has sought advice.
“A lot of women struggle with that exact question of who they are going to be. My success at that has been just being myself,” she said, noting that situations change. She’s found that she does get invited back to the table and people do rely on her leadership.
She helps those she supervises progress professionally but is frustrated by the lack of women in senior leadership.
“It was 20 percent in 1991, and it’s still 20 percent,” said Hollinger, who is seeking creative ways to help young women advance.
She does advise them to socialize with male colleagues (something she admits she hasn’t done well herself), because it’s often in informal settings that contacts are made, information is shared and relationships are built.
“Or, young women can just create their own career path,” Hollinger said.
In this, she leads by example.