Smrithi Mohan: Fish Out of Water to Senior Swan

Smrithi Mohan: Fish out of Water to Senior Swan
2024 Feature Nominations

A senior attorney at Dun & Bradstreet, Smrithi Mohan is as high-tech savvy, creative and innovative a leader as one can be. If you think her name is hard to pronounce, try sifting through this remarkable attorney’s background and accomplishments. Literally, there is too much to compress within these few pages, but we’ll try because her story is not only impressive but hard to imagine being that of one so young.

As the daughter of two engineers perhaps it was destined that she become engrossed in high-tech gadgets at an early age. Mastering coding and delving into the world of robotics, naturally those around her assumed Mohan’s future would lie in the world of engineering like her parents. But Mohan had her own ideas growing up, although even those childhood ambitions would change once she reached college.

“Actually, my whole life all I ever thought about was becoming a doctor,” she says. “Something switched when I was in high school. I think it actually had a lot to do with the fact that I really didn’t feel engaged by my biology teacher and when you’re that young, those kinds of experiences dramatically influence you. Then I naturally began considering becoming an engineer like my parents, since I had always been fascinated by technology and I loved coding, learning programming languages and designing websites at a very young age. My father has a PhD in electrical engineering and my mother has a master’s degree in computer science, so it seemed like a very natural path.

“But you know, in college I began to realize that maybe an engineering-oriented career might not be the most satisfying to me,” she continues. “Along the way, a few people who were close to me suggested that the combination of my technical background and analytical way of approaching things would really be ideal for a career in law, maybe even focused on intellectual property law. The more I researched it the more I thought it would be a good fit for me.”

A New Path

Just as her mentors predicted, Mohan’s rare combination of talent and drive has offered her some unique opportunities in the legal field with significant overlaps in technology.

Today, she is not only a senior attorney, but the creator and leader of the global innovation and intellectual property strategy at Dun & Bradstreet, leading the IP practice, managing a global intellectual property portfolio, educating employees on the hows and whys of protecting the company’s IP, and ensuring the IP practice is fully integrated with every other business and legal component of Dun & Bradstreet.

“I’m really proud to be working for such a fine and reputable company,” she says, “We help companies leverage data and analytical insights by providing a huge range of products and services for so many areas, including sales, marketing, digital advertising, operations and supply, management, financial analysis, just so many different areas. Basically, we’re here to help our clients make more intelligent decisions that deliver a competitive edge for them.”

So where does a tech-savvy attorney fit into the workings of a company that’s 180 years-old? Apparently, her unique skillset and sharp mind were just what they were looking for to update and augment their existing programs. It was a great boon for them and an exciting opportunity for Mohan.

“I got to build, from the ground up, an entire innovation strategy and intellectual property strategy and practice,” she says. “There was never before an IP practice at Dun & Bradstreet which I always found rather interesting, because we are a very technical company. So, that has been incredibly rewarding for me, because I was the sole person tasked with building this entire function.”

Needless to say, such an undertaking would be enormous in both size and the many details, but for Mohan it was like being handed a big, beautifully gift-wrapped package. And she dug in with enthusiasm.

“It’s definitely a huge responsibility,” she acknowledges, “and it’s been a bit of a challenge because since it’s such a long-lasting company, it’s obviously not as easy to mold and change, and then adding the component of ensuring the IP program coincides with privacy regulations, is incorporated into the product development process, ensuring that our sales and marketing teams adhere to our rules of disclosure and market our IP accordingly, along with several other moving components across the business both internally and externally is challenging to say the least. But, then again, we have to be able to adapt with the changing times. We need a strong intellectual property and innovation strategy in order to stay ahead of the competition and continue to grow.”

But not all her work is hunched over a keyboard or coding new programs, Mohan explains her responsibilities in this capacity are quite varied.

“I build relationships with inventors across the board. I work with every business function in the company. Along with my senior IP paralegal Marj Scariati, we educate our team members across business functions to ensure our IP program is as strong as it can be. As our company’s direction shifts and our employees change and IP portfolio evolves, along with it my knowledge and skillset grow as well. It’s incredibly rewarding but being as young as I am and trusted with such large task, what comes to mind is that it’s not just about being a good attorney, it’s about bringing my legal expertise together with my knowledge about business, wrapped together with my ability to communicate and build those long-lasting, trusting relationships with my colleagues.

“It is not enough that I am an expert in intellectual property,” she adds. “I need to learn privacy. I need to learn corporate strategy. I need to be a commercial, contracts, and compliance attorney. I need to learn about our industry and our competition. I need to study our customers, understand what they are looking for, and help our business innovate accordingly. I have to be an effective communicator, a trusted advisor, and a leader. The functional legal areas and skills I need to gain expertise in continuously grows. To be able to do all of that effectively and drive innovation for this company is not only rewarding but an incredible opportunity.”

A Fish Out of Water

While it seems today Mohan has the world on a string, life wasn’t so easy for her growing up. Raised in a predominately all-white, middle-to-upper-class community, her distinctive Indian features made her feel out of place.

“I felt like a fish out of water,” she says recalling those years. “I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb. It was an unusual experience for me growing up and it was unusual for the people around me because they weren’t used to anyone who looked different.

“At that time, I didn’t know who I was or where I was going,” she continues, “I think from law school onward things began falling into place.”

But even at that point in her life, Mohan still faced challenges based on the fact that she was a female in a primarily male-dominated field.

“Even before entering the field of intellectual property, being a woman in the field of law was challenging, not just because of the overarching disparity between men and women, but because some women were so cut-throat. I had some very negative experiences at the beginning of my career with women in power who intentionally made things extremely difficult for me to prevent me from ‘climbing up the ladder’ so to speak. But I had to rise above that, and doing so led me to Dun & Bradstreet where I have had the most phenomenal female mentors including my own leader, Deputy General Counsel Janet Parkhurst, who really empowers me to learn, grow, and lead.

“Unfortunately, though, the challenges are never-ending, and being a woman in the area of intellectual property was not the easiest,” she adds. “It definitely is a male-dominated field and there have been situations where someone would walk up to my desk and say, ‘I need to speak to one of your attorneys,’ obviously not even for a moment considering the fact that I am an attorney! When I explain to them, the looks on their faces are priceless. But what’s really funny, is that some of them were people that I had previously met through work, and yet I guess seeing a female sitting there they automatically jumped to the wrong conclusion.

“They assume I’m a legal secretary or an assistant, and when they find out that I also understand technology that’s a real mind-blower for them,” she adds. “I think it’s something that you ultimately have to deal with in your own way, and definitely not get in your own head. Early on when it used to happen to me it would affect me very negatively. I would think, no matter what I do I’m never going to get ahead because I’m not a man so maybe I should stop trying.

“But that’s where you have to start taking control because if you are persistent and continue to gnaw at it, and develop the attitude, OK you knocked me down but I’m getting right back up! I think that’s what’s gotten me where I am today.”

Where she is today is a highly respected professional who others seek out for her knowledge and expertise. Her work at Dun & Bradstreet alone is evidence that Smrithi Mohan is special and her work and numerous accomplishments bears this out.

Susan Cushing

Susan Cushing is the associate editor of Attorney at Law Magazine as well as a staff writer. She has been contributing to the magazine for more than eight years.

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