Michelle Lee is among the country's highest-profile federal officials. Not only is she the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — making her a key player in setting innovation policy in the United States — she is a former Google executive who knows the tech industry inside and out. As an Asian American woman, who was born and raised in California, Lee is also one of the most powerful administration officials pushing for greater diversity in tech and beyond. I caught up with Lee this week in Aspen, Colo., during a conference hosted by the Technology Policy Institute. Below is a snapshot of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

We look a lot to the private sector to figure out how Washington can work better. Are there things about Washington that Silicon Valley would benefit from learning more about?

Well, I know this, because I came from the private sector, right? Government and governmental agencies have to do what's right for the entire society and the entire public. Their decisions are not driven by "what is right for me and my industry at this time, or this quarter as I try to hit my quarterly or yearly financial targets."

I view my job as doing what's right for innovation for the American public now and in the long run. I can tell you that was not my goal and my mission when I was in the private sector. I had clients whose interests I needed to represent.

In general, the private sector — some companies do have a long-term, holistic goal and approach, but sometimes the market pressures and the financial pressures for profitability don't always enable that. So I do think that the government, even though the process is sometimes slower and there's a lot of consensus-building that's needed, it for the most part does a good job of trying to think, "What is right for the system, across all industries, across all technology areas, now and in the long run?" That's the holy grail. That's the goal. But I don't think that's always the goal in the private sector.

What do we know about patent holders and their demographic makeup? Do we have any data on them?

I have the privilege of being the first woman director in the history of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. As I urge corporations to expand opportunities for women and girls in tech, I myself have looked within my own agency, and I've asked my team to look at the numbers for the patent applicant pool and the breakdown in terms of gender.

It's still pretty preliminary, but I'll tell you, it's not where it should be. That could be a reflection of broader societal issues -- maybe girls aren't in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] as much. But is there anything the USPTO can do to encourage greater numbers of women patent applicants?

Everybody should have access to the intellectual property system. We have a program for girls. I can tell you about the Girl Scout IP patch we created: You have to learn a little bit about patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and you actually have to kind of create something. And if you do that, [Girl Scouts can] earn an IP patch.

I was a Girl Scout, and the patches I remember earning were on first aid and sewing. I think we can do better than that. (Laughs).

Going back to the women applicants — I'm looking at that number, and I'm trying to see what we can do to increase the numbers. And another thing, too: It's not only gender, but —

Racial minorities, I'm sure —

— age — well, that's harder for us, because we don't ask for [race] information. We actually don't ask for gender, either. We're making guesses based on names. So our guesses are approximate. But even then, the numbers are —

Pretty stark?

Yeah. They could be better. The other thing, too, is there's no requirement on age for an applicant for a patent. You have an age requirement to vote, you have an age requirement to drive, but why shouldn't our kids be thinking of great inventions and filing for patents even before they're adults? And I think that'd be a good thing.

As you know, there's been a big push at the White House to increase diversity, particularly among Silicon Valley companies, and also to try to increase broadband adoption. And I just wonder whether you see a connection between broadband adoption and inventions. What is the impact of the Internet on the kinds of patent applications you're seeing?

That's an interesting question. If you want to be innovating and inventing at the cutting edge, you have to be familiar with, and be aware of where that edge is, and how much further and where to push forward. So if there are segments of our society that do not have access to Internet, it's hard for those segments to innovate — not that it's impossible, you certainly could. But … I actually do believe that all parts of our country across all geographic regions and across all demographics should be equally enabled to make contributions, and I think access to the Internet helps with that.

Are we missing out on a potential generation of inventors in those parts of society that don't have Internet access?

We need to enable all of our potential innovators. And I've said this from the beginning. Whatever the gender, whatever the ethnicity, whatever the demographic — I mean, we really need to give all of our kids equal access to STEM education, and enrichment programs, and use of technology. Because you never know who's going to be the one who comes up with that next great idea that becomes the foundation of a company that revolutionizes the way we do things.