After graduating from Syracuse University and the University of Michigan Law School, Sharon Barner ’79 practiced as a litigator and did merger and acquisition work, but soon discovered an affinity for intellectual property. For several years, she worked on the patent case Hughes Aircraft Company v. the United States and it sparked her passion for intellectual property (IP), understanding the importance of technology and its impact on business. “The case was about satellite technology and how that really opened the door for 24-hour communication, GPS and a lot of technology we have now, way before we knew we were going to have it,” says Barner, a Syracuse University trustee who is now vice president, chief administrative officer and corporate secretary at Cummins Inc., an Indiana-based multinational known for its power-generating systems.
The opportunity to go to Syracuse and get the kind of education it offered changed my life. I want to help others experience some of those same things I did.—Sharon Barner ’79
Along with embracing the intellectual challenge of understanding technology, which appealed to her interest in science, research and its outcomes, Barner enjoyed translating what she learned into storytelling. She wanted to convey the impact of technology and show how it could add value to the business. As a partner at the Chicago-based law firm Foley & Lardner, she led the IP department and over the course of two decades was widely recognized as a leading expert in the field, often speaking and writing about IP-related issues. “I had the best of both worlds by marrying the legal issues with the science,” she says.
Barner went on to serve as deputy under secretary of commerce for intellectual property and deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Among her duties, she guided U.S. and foreign IP policies and led international missions that focused on IP’s impact on business and innovation. She was also instrumental in developing legislation that led to the 2011 America Invents Act, which shifted the U.S. patent system from the recognized first inventor gaining patent rights to the first inventor to file the patent application receiving rights. The act modernized the country’s patent laws, better aligning them with international standards and improving our competitiveness in the global market. “I spent five or six years working on the legislation that led to the act,” she says. “That’s how I got into policy discussions and got involved in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.”
In 2012, Barner joined Cummins as vice president, general counsel. In her current role, she leads several global teams, including communications, marketing, government relations, compliance, facilities, security, legal and shared services. Along with serving on the Syracuse University Board of Trustees, she sits on a number of other public and nonprofit organization boards, including Howmet Aerospace Inc., Indiana Repertory Theatre, Eskenazi Health Foundation, and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. In her board work, Barner believes it’s important to understand the finances and operations of public companies and not-for-profit organizations alike, saying they share many similarities. “The difference for me is in the organization’s mission,” says Barner, who was named to Savoy magazine’s 2021 list of Most Influential Black Corporate Directors. “To achieve the mission, you have to raise the money you need to have the organization run and make sure the operations are as efficient as they can be.”
Persevering Through Challenging Times
When asked about her key to success, Barner cites her tenacity. As an African American woman entering the corporate world of the 1980s, she says she was often the only woman, the only Black person and the only Black woman in the room. “I had to develop a sense that I was in it for the fight, both from a professional perspective and a personal one,” she says. “That tenacity meant walking into rooms where I knew there would be doubt about my capability. I had to build up this willingness to fight the battle.”
Those experiences also helped guide Barner’s philosophy as a leader. She’s committed to ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion are central to the work environment and corporate strategy, and she describes her approach to leadership as “one of transparency, one of caring and one of support.” She wants the people she’s leading to be the best they can be and provides feedback, encouraging them and helping them to grow. She believes it’s important to care about the whole person—“not just the professional who shows up at my door,” she says—and support their individual goals.
My job is to inspire and engage the people I lead. It’s about empowering them and not just who I am as a leader. Who I am is about helping you become you.—Sharon Barner ’79
Barner’s background has played a pivotal role in her success as well. She grew up in the small town of Twinsburg, Ohio, and wanted to attend a big university out of state. She set her sights on Syracuse and when her high school guidance counselor suggested she couldn’t succeed at a “predominantly white institution outside of Ohio,” she bristled. “The moment someone tells me I can’t do something, it’s motivation for doing it,” she says. “That was one of those things that has catapulted my goals and tenacity.”
Embracing the Syracuse Experience
And, as it turned out, she loved her Syracuse experience. She earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences and political science from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, participated in track and cheerleading and immersed herself in social and cultural activities. “I took advantage of what Syracuse had to offer as a college, growing both intellectually and culturally, because I met a lot of different people who I would never have run into in my life in my small hometown.”
At Syracuse, I developed a sense of confidence, commitment and capability that comes with a good education.—Sharon Barner ’79
Her psychology studies, she says, proved to be a great asset to her legal career, helping her to understand people as well as fueling her interest in science that tied into her IP work. Today, Barner sees her passion for education coming full circle. As a Syracuse University trustee, she wants to help the University continue to flourish. She knows that a college education can provide invaluable experiences and change lives—just as it did for her when she was a teenager. “The opportunity to go to Syracuse and get the kind of education it offered changed my life,” she says. “I want to help others experience some of those same things I did.”