Debbie Sterling is passionately invested in creating new role models for girls. The young engineer and independent toymaker, who launched a Kickstarter campaign last week for her new toy — GoldieBlox, the engineering toy for girls — has already been featured in the Atlantic and the Huffington Post.
“GoldieBlox isn’t a princess, and she isn’t a nerd either,” Sterling told me in our interview last week. “She’s a quirky girl with mismatched socks and gold shoes.”
And hopefully soon, GoldieBlox will be a toy on the shelves in stores near you. Sterling’s Kickstarter, which needed to raise $150,000 in order to crowd fund the first production run of 5,000 units, reached $176,000 on Wednesday, only two weeks into the one-month campaign.
But GoldieBlox is much more than a toy to Sterling. “My mission for the company is to inspire the next generation of female engineers. This toy is one way of doing that,” she said. “We are having fun finding ways to make engineering more accessible.”
Debbie Sterling grew up in a small town in Rhode Island. The 29-year-old had never considered engineering growing up until her high school calculus teacher recommended that she pursue it as a major at Stanford. Sterling laughed, “I remember being embarrassed to ask her what it was, because I didn’t know. I thought an engineer was someone who fixed train engines.”
When Sterling arrived on Stanford’s campus, she tried an intro class in mechanical engineering. Much to her surprise, she loved it, so much so that she wound up majoring in mechanical engineering with a focus in product design. The program, which Sterling noted was heavily influenced by David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, placed an “emphasis on creativity, technology and design methodology with a concern for human values and the needs of society.”
“It’s not just engineering,” said Sterling. “It’s also design and psychology, so that you don’t just learn the technical, how to make the thing function, but really what’s behind it. What are people’s needs, and how do you design for them?”
After graduating from Stanford in 2005, Sterling worked as a branding strategist at an agency in Seattle, which she describes as being kind of like Mad Men. While she enjoyed doing branding, and working to understand people’s needs, after four years she had her ‘quarter life crisis.' Questioning what she was doing, and the impact she was having on the world, Sterling picked up and moved to rural India to volunteer for six months. While she was there, she met a woman from the UK who went back home and convinced all of her friends to give her $20 to buy a goat for the village.
Sterling decided to do the same thing, but “in my Debbie way, which is non-traditional and fun.” This is what she came up with.
After returning to the U.S., Sterling started working for a jewelry company. Her work there taught her how to run a small business, skills that would be crucial in launching GoldieBlox. Sterling was able to use her branding and consulting experience to increase revenue for the store, and learned how to direct manufacturing overseas, how to sell products in department stores, and a host of other skills which gave her the confidence to start her own company.
“The whole theme of this is that I’m constantly searching for my passion and trying really random things,” she told me.
The idea for GoldieBlox came to Sterling after a discussion she had with her friends in San Francisco, who she describes as “a bunch of very creative entrepreneur types,” at a tradition they called “idea brunch.” Another women there, also a mechanical engineer from Stanford, said that her crazy idea was to make pink Legos for girls, because she was frustrated by how few women there were in engineering.
And inspiration struck Sterling.
“I started sketching ideas in my sketchbook. I started going to toy stores. I went and tried to play with kids,” she remembered. “I even posted an ad on Craigslist that said, ‘Free babysitting for girls two through nine.’ No one replied, because they all thought I was totally creepy, but I was throwing myself out there trying to play with kids so I could do the kind of user-centered design, where I get to know my audience.”
Sterling started doing other kinds research as well, meeting with everyone from fellow entrepreneurs to toymakers at the New York toy fair to Harvard neuroscientists. Her ‘aha moment,’ as she puts it, was that the toy had to be both verbal and spacial: a book plus a construction toy. After writing with an advisor (the founder of Pictionary), she came up with the idea for her toy, which combines storytelling and building to make girls “engage, tinker and problem solve.”
“I went to the hardware store and bought wooden dowels and thread spools and ribbons, and started making machines out of stuff you find around the house. Once I had created a very crude but working prototype, I tested my prototype with over 100 kids.”
Now, thanks to a team including a graphic designer, an industrial designer and design research specialized, the prototype is ready to hit the toy market, selling for $29.99 for girls ages 5-9. The press release for Sterling’s company promises, “GoldieBlox is more than a toy; it’s a movement.”
Sterling emphasized, “The movement is to get more girls and women into engineering. Of all the fields, we are vastly underrepresented there, compared to everything else. One toy is not going to fix that. However, by having this girl in her overalls and tool belt sitting on a toy store shelf next to Thomas the Train and Bob the Builder and Sid the Science Kid – it sends a message. And having parents say, ‘Yes, I want to buy this for my daughter; she’s more than a princess,’ sends a message to the toy industry.”
Sterling recommends that aspiring entrepreneurs network shamelessly, and always seek the help they need, emphasizing that it’s important to find people “who know more than you do.”
“As long as you are so passionate about it, you wake up every morning and it’s all you want to do, the doors will open, passion will ooze out of it, people will back you help you. When that happens it’s genuine, and everyone knows it.”
And Sterling’s advice – to follow your genuine passion, even if it takes you a while to identify what that is – certainly seems to be paying off for the engineer herself in her quest to inspire the next generation of young women.