Debbie Sterling



Stanford University - Engineering

Debbie Sterling, an engineer from Stanford University, had an idea to inspire the next generation of female engineers and address the industry's astounding gender gap: Give girls a role model.

So, she invented GoldieBlox, a book series and construction toy starring Goldie, a girl engineer and role model who is smart, curious and accessible. Debbie felt her toy hit so many marks: potential to get girls interested in engineering, develop their spatial skills and build self-confidence in their problem solving abilities. It was the type of toy she wished she'd had growing up.

But toymakers weren't interested. They said "construction toys for girls don't sell," and pointed to aisles of glittery princesses and dolls as success stories. Those are what girls want, they said.

Debbie didn't buy it. She took GoldieBlox to Kickstarter. She had 30 days to raise $150,000; 30 days to get her toy to production and prove those toy industry veterans wrong. She hit her Kickstarter goal in five days

My favorite part of my job is interacting with kids. I’m constantly amazed and inspired by their creativity.

Tell us more about GoldieBlox. What is the toy? How is it geared uniquely toward girls? And what was your reason for creating it?

Goldie Blox makes construction toys for girls, all with the mission to inspire the next generation of female engineers. It’s a book series and construction toy that stars Goldie, the kid engineer who loves to build. As she goes on adventures with her friends, she has to solve problems by building simple machines. As kids read along, they get to build what Goldie builds, using the pieces from the set. GoldieBlox gives girls both the right role model and the safe space to practice engineering principles from a young age.

Construction toys are notorious for developing the spatial skills needed to excel in engineering, and yet they are also notorious for being a “boys club.” GoldieBlox is changing all that. It goes beyond the industry trend of “pinking and shrinking” these boys toys, using girls' love of storytelling to get them to develop their spatial skills.

You've used newer methods for launching a startup, including Kickstarter and social media. What has the startup process been like?

When I started this project a year ago, I knew that this idea of “engineering toys for girls” was badly, badly needed. I envisioned a toy for the masses, something every family could afford for their little girls. I dreamed of a role model, the girl engineer character of “Goldie Blox” who girls would fall in love with and want to emulate. However, when I first started sharing the concept, I received quite a bit of push back from toy industry veterans. While they thought it was a noble cause, many argued that construction toys for girls just “don’t sell”. They argued that dolls and princesses are popular for a reason, and that you “can’t fight nature.” I launched on Kickstarter in hopes to prove them wrong. Sure enough, the response was overwhelming. I received countless emails from fans saying the video brought tears to their eyes. I heard one story from a mom who showed the video to her daughter. The next morning at breakfast, there was a problem with the waffle iron. The little girl said, “Mommy, why don’t we invite the girl engineer? She can fix it!”

As soon as I launched on Kickstarter, doors started opening left and right. From potential investors to reporters to job candidates to toy stores around the world. I couldn't be happier with my decision to launch in a grassroots, viral way. The story of my company is authentic and empowering. It's not just a toy, it's an opportunity for girls everywhere. This really hit a powerful chord with people -- something even those initial naysayers cannot deny.

Who has mentored you through the entrepreneurial process? How did you connect with these people?

Last February, I attended a social entrepreneurship retreat called “StartingBloc” that changed my life. There, I was incredibly inspired by other entrepreneurs who taught me that in order to achieve your dreams, you need to identify the right mentors to help you get there, and relentlessly stalk them until they agree to help you. That is exactly what I’ve done. For example, one of my advisors is Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a highly respected women’s activist and creator of the film, “Miss Representation.” I was researching her online, and found out about a screening of her film where she’d be attending for a Q&A. I went to the screening and as soon as it was finished, I literally ran onto the stage and practically knocked her over! After about a minute of rambling, she agreed to have coffee with me and the rest is history.

Along a similar vein, I met my industrial designer by crashing an “Industrial Design Society of America” happy hour and mingling around until I found the perfect match.

Some of my other advisors include Terry Langston, the founder of Pictionary and Brendan Boyle, the head of toys at IDEO.

You're a Stanford-educated engineer. What piqued your interest in engineering and helped you enter this male-dominated field?

I really liked art as a kid, and I had a college art teacher who said, “your drawing style looks very technical, have you thought about engineering?” I took Mechanical Engineering 101 at Stanford, and it blew my mind. It wasn’t like the stereotypes at all, it wasn’t nerdy, it was actually very artsy -- we had assignments like designing an object to launch a tennis ball as far as you can using a soda can and a piece of string. I loved it.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is interacting with kids. I’m constantly amazed and inspired by their creativity. I love watching kids play with our toy prototypes and seeing what they come up with -- it’s never what you’d expect! So many of the design decisions I’ve made so far have been directly inspired by kids. It’s such a fun and critical part of the toy-making process; and it always reminds me why I’m doing this in the first place.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

The biggest obstacle so far as been in getting the product "just right." It's sort of a Goldilocks story, funnily enough. In one sample, the holes were too large, In the next, they were too tight. It's been a struggle to get them "juuuust right." Because our factory is in China, there is a long delay in between sample revisions and it's not always easy to communicate such minor tweaks. We were running out of time and still hadn't gotten it "just right," so I booked a last-minute flight to China and visited the factory in person to make sure nothing got lost in translation. That finally did the trick.

The other major obstacle that I faced was when I first started out was that I was afraid to show anyone my ideas in fear they would get "stolen." I holed myself up like a hermit in my apartment, drawing, sketching and tinkering by myself for hours. This made me kind of lonely and depressed. I finally snapped out of it by attending a social entrepreneurship conference called StartingBloc. There, I met incredibly inspiring entrepreneurs who are changing the world. They all had the same advice: to put yourself out there, find the right mentors, collaborate, brainstorm and network. It seems so obvious now, but this was the impetus I needed to find people to collaborate with and start acting like a true entrepreneur, instead of a lonely inventor. That literally changed everything.

What is the biggest personal sacrifice you have to make because of your job?

I'm still working to figure out how to achieve work/life balance. I used to be a marathon runner, and now I can barely find time to do a 3-mile run during the week. I used to love traveling internationally, yet now it's hard to take even one day off without desperately wanting to check my work email. I used to spend a lot more social time with friends, and now we have to schedule things weeks in advance.

What advice do you have for women who want to become an engineer?  What are some of the rules you live by?

My advice to any woman who wants to become an engineer is to go for it, persevere and tell all their friends and family about their journey. My engineering education was incredibly challenging, but all the more rewarding. It isn't easy to be a woman in a male-dominated field, but we'll only reach gender equality by marching through the trenches, heads held high, and inspiring others with our stories.

-Interview by Keriann Strickland