Debbie Sterling says she was, “your typical sort of girly girl, stuffed animals and kitchen and dress-up” while she was growing up in Rhode Island. She was also a good student but when a high school math teacher suggested she study engineering in college, she was a little surprised.
“I didn’t know what an engineer was. I thought it was a train driver.”
That changed when she took mechanical engineering 101 at Stanford University. “Engineering is a great creative outlet. It involves innovation and problem solving and thinking outside the box.”
She also learned quickly that engineering is a field dominated by men, “I was usually one of a handful of girls in my classes of 50, 60, 70 guys. I would often find in these group projects the guys didn’t take my ideas seriously. I felt left out. I never felt good enough.”
She graduated from Stanford in 2005 with a degree in product design engineering, the same year Steve Jobs famously told the graduating class, “I was lucky I found what I love to do early in life. So keep looking. Don’t settle.”
Sterling listened, “the message he sent to all of us was never settle until you find your passion.”
She didn’t – though it took six years.
There were marketing jobs and volunteer work in India but she was home in San Francisco with friends at an “idea brunch,” when she got to talking with a fellow Stanford engineering grad, another woman, about the dearth of women engineers. She remembers her friend saying engineering was a natural because she grew up playing with her older brother’s hand-me-down Lincoln Logs and Legos.
“At that moment it just hit me that why were those her brother’s toys? And why didn’t I get those as a little girl? And all of those kids in those engineering classes were all very well versed in those construction toys and they were at an advantage because they knew how to build things and put stuff together.”
It was no surprise then when she went to the toy store and saw what she calls the “pink aisle.” There were no building kits to be found alongside the princess dolls and play kitchens. She decided this was something she needed to fix.
Sterling says women comprise only 11 percent of the U.S. engineering force. In 2011 she began months of research, talking to neuroscientists and reading up on cognitive development in children until she connected some dots and came up with an idea.
“Girls have really strong verbal skills,” she says, “and they love stories and characters and that was missing from all the construction toys on the market. They had no narrative or story. There was no why are we building this roller-coaster? And who’s riding on it and where are we going? And who’s it helping?”
That kind of thinking is what had gotten Sterling hooked in college and she became convinced it could work for little girls.
She developed a prototype at home in her apartment and eventually wrote a book. The star character, “Goldie,” is a somewhat mischievous, builder, tinkerer but she also has friends and even cares about what she looks like, “she’s a spunky engineer and she’s not a genius.” Not unlike Sterling who prefers to measure Goldie against a handful of cultural icons, “we had Rosie the Riveter, we had Pippi Longstocking, we had Matilda, we had Punky Brewster and Eloise. Those were sort of the five female characters that influenced Goldie.”
She even did the drawings herself which might have brought a smile to her late grandmother, Sterling Sturtevant, who blazed a trail of her own as one of the first female studio cartoonists. Sturtevant helped develop Mr. Magoo back in the 1950’s.
It all made sense, but it didn’t make any money at first.
The big toymakers weren’t buying the idea, “the message kind of over and over again was looking at me with pity saying oh this girl doesn’t know that construction toys for girls don’t sell. Suddenly I’m walking around like I’m in the twilight zone and I feel like I’m in the 1950’s. I was pretty dejected and I sat there thinking… What am I doing?”
She didn’t give up though. Up until this time she’d done almost everything by herself but one thing most entrepreneurs learn is that they usually need to find the right kind of help.
At a social entrepreneurship conference in California, Sterling was convinced, for the first time, to share her idea in public. She got up on a stage and told her story. The response shocked her, “the room just exploded.”
Not only that but she left with two new friends who’d studied design research at Cornell University. Together, they took the prototypes out to test them with little girls all over the Bay area in the summer of 2012. They were able to tweak and polish the story and building kit.
“I had girls in tutus building… belts. Seeing what their bedroom is like and what other toys they like and whatever else they’re into and you learn they’re so much more complex than what the pink aisle makes them out to be.”
At the same time, with some help from a former work friend who’d dealt with overseas manufacturers, they found a factory in China. A minimum production run of five thousand units would cost about $150,000 dollars, quite a bit more than the $40,000 she’d raised and spent on research and the prototype.
So she launched a Kickstarter video in September 2012. The story and the video were one of the rare Kickstarter hits. The goal was met in four days. After a month, they’d raised $ 285, 000.
The video kept running on YouTube and Sterling’s story kept spreading, “suddenly my phone was going berserk and it was just ding, ding, ding, ding.”
Instead of five thousand units, the first production run was 40,000. One of the callers was Toys “R” Us, which took GoldieBlox national in 2013.
This year, Sterling hired professional artists who have given Goldie a makeover. There’s also a new edition out in stores and more products planned for 2014. Sterling says the company is profitable, though she won’t say how much it’s making.
Having seen the power of marketing on the Internet, GoldieBlox put a new video on-line in November and came up with an even bigger hit; eight million hits in a week and a dose of controversy.
The new video, “GoldieBlox & Rube Goldberg ‘Princess Machine’” this time featuring three girls (who, by the way are actually GoldieBlox customers) bored with the usual girl fare. Instead, they appear to construct a house enveloping Rube Goldberg machine using their mostly pink toys, while rapping lines like, “It’s time to change. Because all our toys look just the same. We deserve a range.. Because we want to use our brains.”
Sterling says the song is a parody of the 1980’s Beastie Boys song, “girls!,” which refers to some less than girl friendly stereotypes, “Girls – to do the dishes. Girls – to clean up my room…”
It was such a big hit that the Beastie Boys began to ask GoldieBlox why their song had been chosen. Goldie Blox filed a pre-emptive lawsuit hoping to protect its right to use the song but then took the music down amidst reports that late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch had written in his will that his work not be used in any advertising. As of December 6th however, GoldieBlox had not withdrawn its suit.
The video and the buzz it generated, some positive, some not, were certainly good for the bottom line, “we shot up to the number one and number two best-selling toys on Amazon this week,” she told us, back on November 21st, before the music was changed.
The next day, Sterling was recognized as the “Rising Star Inventor of the Year” at the Toy & Game Industry Awards in Chicago. Another in what’s becoming a long line of surprising accomplishments but Sterling won’t be happy until she finds out whether her toy can begin to effect some change. Change in the types of toys available for girls… and eventually, change in the workforce.
“Engineering doesn’t have to be this incredibly intimidating, math, science-y thing. We can start showing girls engineering actually changes people’s lives and it can help make the world a better place.”