Black History Month IPIC Member Spotlight - Ismaël Coulibaly
In celebration of Black History Month throughout February IPIC will be highlighting leaders in the #IP profession through a series of Member Spotlights. The spotlights promote the significant contributions these members have made to the IP profession and industry and bring awareness to challenges and/or obstacles they have faced in their careers. Each spotlight will also include insights and advice to inspire the next generation of IP leaders. The following spotlight features IPIC member Ismaël Coulibaly, Partner/Lawyer & Trademark Agent, BENOÎT & CÔTÉ.
About Ismaël: Ismaël Coulibaly is a Partner, Lawyer (Quebec Bar), and Trademark Agent at BENOÎT & CÔTÉ, a Montreal-based Intellectual Property boutique firm. He has over 10 years of experience in the field of IP. While Ismaël’s practice encompasses all aspects of IP (from patents to copyright), it has a strong focus on trademarks: prosecution, portfolio management, administrative contentious proceedings and litigation, licensing, and regulatory matters. Ismaël’s expertise has been recognized by the 2023 edition of the World Trademark Review (WTR 1000) as a World’s Leading Trademark Professional. In parallel to his practice, Ismaël has been involved in the field of IP over the years, notably as director of the last edition of FORPIQ (International Intellectual Property Forum Quebec). Since 2010, Ismaël has been running a Twitter account in the field of IP law @Balmayer.
Why is equality, diversity, and inclusion important to the IP profession?
The business case for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has already been made, as multiple studies confirmed the important benefits that can be derived from DEI in the workplace. With diversity of backgrounds and experiences, will necessarily come different points of view. Those different perspectives will broaden the horizons and feed a deeper reflection, ultimately leading to more thoughtful solutions. In a field like IP, where creativity and innovation is at the heart of what we do, it would be a shame to miss out on it! IP is already quite a niche and can appear like a difficult field of law to break into. At least that's what I hear. Over the years, I have seen multiple talented Black aspiring IP practitioners redirect towards other fields of law, by default, for lack of having been given an opportunity. In such a context, I believe that having more Black professionals (or more ethnic diversity in general) would contribute to make aspiring and junior IP practitioners feel more welcomed, enhance a certain sense of belonging, and allow them to thrive. The low number of Black professionals in the field of IP can also create an issue of perception. If I look at the recent 2023 edition of the WTR 1000 rankings by the World Trademark Review—listing Canadian leading trademark practitioners—I have enough of one hand to count listed Black professionals (me included)… amongst the 252 recommended individuals. Actually, not even all of my fingers would be needed. Such rankings are considered “go-to” resources, serving as a barometer for knowledge and competence for the public and potential clients. I believe that such a homogeneous list of professionals can be the bedrock of unconscious perception bias. Also, people tend to hire people who are just like them. And people with a good “cultural fit” with the firm. I see it as a hindrance to diversity. More Black professionals in decision-making positions would definitely be beneficial in that regard. One a more positive note, we start to see it in certain firms and I feel that the Canadian IP community is heading in the right direction. This Black History Month IPIC Member Spotlight is an eloquent example. Thank you for that! I also firmly believe that the IP community has a natural openness and sensitivity towards diversity, as a lot of us closely collaborate with foreign agents form various jurisdictions. People that we value, respect, and consider as equal despite their differences.
Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
With a father coming from a small remote village in the Eastern part of Senegal, just being here is a win for me. I can only feel grateful for what I have today. And I feel like Canada is a country that knows how to give a chance to those who put the work in and seize the day. Being ranked in the WTR 1000 (2022 and 2023 editions) has definitely been a recent highlight. As well as being able to represent my firm on the international scene during INTA annual meetings. The nomination as Emerging Governor by the Quebec Bar is also an accomplishment that I cherish. But beyond the destination, it is more the journey that I am most proud of. Having managed to make a name for myself and build a practice over the years through innumerable articles, peer-reviewed publications, conferences, speaking engagements, courses, networking events, volunteer implications, etc. As an big time introvert, a newcomer in a foreign country (immigrated from France in 2009) with no connections or knowledge of the legal market, coming from a familial background a thousand miles away from the business world, having to learn English virtually from scratch, and having articled in a very small firm far from the prestige of BigLaw: stepping out of my comfort zone, embracing fear, and “grinding” has paid dividends. Looking back now, I realize that resilience is the keyword of that ongoing journey. I am saying all that so it can inspire other people and encourage them not to give up. Finally (and most importantly), juggling a fulfilling career and spending a lot of time with my 15-month daughter. Making a conscious choice to do so, and not lose sight of life's real priorities (other than Paris Convention priorities).
What advice would you give to those who are just joining our association as they look to advance their careers?
Finding a mentor will be greatly beneficial. It played a pivotal role for me and has been essential in my professional development over the years. I attended a mentorship information session from the Quebec Bar in 2013, enrolled in the program, and had been assigned a very caring and benevolent mentor. As of today, I still highly value his opinion. Mentors have been there done that. They have the playbook. Their sharing of experience and insights is always eye opening. You don’t know what you don’t know! A mentor can help you find and then follow the beaten path rather than having to clear a virgin ground by yourself with no guidance or direction. Aside from that, you need to get involved and leave some skin in the game: do things that will challenge you and you will rise up to the occasion. Go to conferences where IP professionals are there, to trade shows, introduce yourself, interact and show interest, publish articles, do webinars, workshops, etc. It will compound over time. I like the saying “what is done in the dark will always find a way to shine”. Keep doing the right things. I believe that there are no substitute or shortcut for hard work, dedication, consistency, and patience. Start (early) to build a strong, distinctive, and authentic personal brand. Don't hesitate to put your face out there, and to communicate your expertise and accomplishments with passion. Your difference will be your strength and will help you stand out. This is where you should set aside your imposter syndrome and act like someone who wants to be a reference in the field would. And, of course, make the most of LinkedIn. This is a very good place to get noticed. By the way, if you read those lines, I warmly invite you to connect. Onward and upward!
What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of BIPOC leaders in the IP profession?
Representation is and will remain an important challenge. I remember the first time I attended a gathering of trademark practitioners for a local conference (information kindly shared by my mentor). As I walked in, I noted that there was no BIPOC among the participants (about 35 people). Representation will not happen overnight. It will require concerted action and structuring measures, as no one can tackle this issue in isolation. For instance, I believe that one initiative that helped to move the needle was the conscious choice I made—when I was involved in the organization of FORPIQ as a director—to push for having Frantz Saintellemy (of Haitian origin), a successful entrepreneur in the field of technology well versed in IP, to be the Honorary President and keynote speaker (a first in the history of the conference and a big hit). It is not because we do not see them, that these highly talented BIPOC do not exist. Giving the spotlight is important. For the anecdote, I also must say that I’ve had sometimes the pleasant experience of receiving a call by prospective clients, saying that they browsed the list of Trademark Agents, came across my name with surprise, and want me (and no one else!) to assist them. Difference can also be an edge sometimes.
How has your background/influences brought you to this position, and what made you want to volunteer for IPIC?
I feel like IP is the perfect field to quench my intellectual curiosity and my thirst for learning. While giving free rein to my creativity. The international dimension of the practice, the meetings, and conferences abroad is also something that speaks to me. I took IP classes during my Master’s degrees in France and in Quebec, and worked a summer for Just for Laugh as assistant to the Director of commercial and legal affairs. But I must say that I was lucky to end up landing an articling position in a firm with extensive trademark work where I could learn the ropes and be given a lot of autonomy early on. It was important for me to take part to this IPIC series of portrait, because I believe that one should always seize the opportunity when giving a voice on such an important topic as DEI. Hats off to IPIC!