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GoldieBlox Founder Debbie Sterling’s Social Mission to Inspire More Female Engineers

March 25, 2013
GoldieBlox Founder Debbie Sterling 1

Debbie Sterling

This is a story about an entrepreneur who quit a stable, well-paying job and risked her life savings to pursue a passion. This is a story of an engineer using skills she acquired at Stanford University to create something new. And this is a story of a businesswoman who leveraged non-traditional funding sources, most notably Kickstarter, to raise the capital needed to launch a company. Meet Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, a Bay Area startup launched in 2012 to create toys that inspire girls to pursue engineering.

Ms. Sterling generated nationwide media attention, from Time Magazine to Wired to Forbes, after raising over $285,000 on Kickstarter to fund GoldieBlox. There are more women than men in our country, yet according to the National Science Foundation barely 15% of engineering degrees are awarded to women. There are exceptions, including renowned Harvey Mudd College, where women are approaching an equal split of graduates, yet despite years of effort, the number of women seeking engineering degrees remains stubbornly low.

Debbie Sterling is on a social mission to change those statistics by  introducing a generation of girls to engineering. OneDublin.org recently spoke with Ms. Sterling about women in engineering, entrepreneurship and founding her company, GoldieBlox.

James Morehead: You recently spoke with middle school girls at the Expanding Your Horizons Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) event held at UC Berkeley. What message were you trying to convey?

GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine Construction Toy for Girls 1

GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine

Debbie Sterling: “The reason why I started GoldieBlox in the first place was because I am passionate about getting more girls and women into engineering. As I began researching the problem I identified that you have to hook girls when they are really young. As early as age four girls start identifying certain gender roles in occupations. The first toy that I’ve launched, which I hope will eventually be a huge brand covering a bunch of different ages, was designed for girls aged five through nine.

“When I was asked to speak at Expanding Your Horizons I realized I can also be a role model, and connect with girls outside the age range of GoldieBlox’s first toy. What I was hoping to do was demonstrate that an engineer can be a woman, and that you don’t need to be a genius; I think I’m a pretty accessible person. I was hoping that they could look at me and see themselves, see my passion for engineering, in the hope that it would spark something.”

Morehead: What was your spark to pursue engineering and apply to Stanford University?

Sterling: “There is one reason for it. I asked my math teacher in high school, she was one of my favorite teachers, to write my recommendation letter for Stanford. She asked what I was planning to major in so she could talk about it in the letter and I told her that I didn’t know. She asked if I’d thought about engineering and it threw me off because I thought engineering was a weird thing to suggest. I remember being embarrassed because I didn’t know what engineering was, I thought maybe it was a train driver [laughs], but I was too embarrassed to ask her so I just smiled and shrugged my shoulders. I forgot about that conversation until my freshman year in college when I still hadn’t decided what to major in, and her voice stuck in my head.

“It’s not that often that you have an adult that you really admire suggest something like what you should be when you grow up, so it sticks with you. Toward the end of my freshman year I took Mechanical Engineering 101, really fell in love with it, and declared mechanical engineering as my major. I never would have ended up in engineering if it weren’t for the suggestion of my math teacher that one day.”

Morehead: As you noted, a lot of people don’t get what engineering is really about. How has what you learned in college about engineering helped you in making GoldieBlox a reality?

Sterling: “Engineering has many different fields; the field of engineering that I studied in college was product design within the mechanical engineering department. I’ve applied everything that I learned in college in creating GoldieBlox. Everything from sketching out ideas, brainstorming tactics, collaborating in a multi-disciplinary way, bringing in experts from different fields to help think outside the box, learning how to use tools in a machine shop which I later used for prototyping, learning how to conduct user research, studying ergonomics to help designing for little fingers, using CAD (computer-aided design) systems to create 3D models on a computer, understanding the manufacturing process; literally everything I learned in college, I’ve applied.”

Morehead: You took a significant risk leaving a stable, well-paying job to invest your life-savings into starting GoldieBlox. How did you plan that leap into the unknown?

GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine Construction Toy for Girls 2

GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine

Sterling: “I remember the very moment when I had the idea for GoldieBlox. I was hanging out with a group of friends and we had a tradition called ‘Idea Brunch’ where we got together, made breakfast, and shared our latest ideas for an invention or project. In one of the sessions a girl friend who also studied mechanical engineering with me at Stanford mentioned LEGO for girls, because there aren’t enough female engineers. She said she’d played with her brother’s LEGO sets and that it helped her get interested in Engineering. The moment she said that it was like a lightening bolt for me. It was an epiphany moment: I knew I had discovered what I wanted to do with my life. Ever since that moment I become really obsessed with the idea: it’s all I thought about, all I talked about, all I wanted to do.

“I had a full-time job and started saving, knowing that eventually I was going to leave that job and create an engineering toy for girls, that it was my life’s calling. I created a plan for how to accomplish my dream: I drew a deadline on the calendar – ‘I will quit my job by this date.’ I decided to give the idea one year and made sure I had enough savings in my bank account so that I could go one year without making any money and wouldn’t be destitute. If by the end of one year nothing took off, if I couldn’t come up with a solution, if there was no traction, I could always go get another job.

“It didn’t feel like I was taking that huge of a risk, it felt like it was what I had to do. I was unhappy at my job, I didn’t want to be there, I only wanted to be working on this toy. I would be waiting for my bosses to go out on their lunch break so I could research toys online. I was spending most of my lunch breaks at Toys R Us and Target, walking around and watching people shop. On weekends I was asking my friends to let me babysit their kids. It wasn’t a huge risk or leap – I had to do it. It didn’t even feel like a choice.”

Morehead: In college I found engineering to be a very practical discipline, that at its core really teaches you how to solve problems. I was also told once that great ideas are a dime a dozen, that it’s how to execute on those ideas that makes the difference. Tell me about some of the unexpected, tough problems you solved to make GoldieBlox a reality.

Sterling: “I had created a working prototype using a peg board, thread spools and wooden dowels. It worked and it’s what I used to test the toy with hundreds of kids, and they really liked it. I was confident that I had a great idea and now had to turn the prototype into a real toy. I worked with an industrial designer to spec the toy and put it into a CAD system, and then worked with a factory to create a beautiful prototype. The real challenge is how you create parts that can be mass-produced, using injection-molded plastic. That step required very advanced engineering, far beyond what I had ever studied in school. In designing a mold for plastic parts you have to ensure that the plastic flows through evenly and in just the right way, and when the plastic cools it must set in a certain way.

“It’s not that hard to create a simple, one-piece toy, but I was creating a construction toy that requires perfect tolerances. The pieces must fit together perfectly, meaning the holes have to be accurate to 0.0001 mm; if you are off by just a tiny amount and have to make a change it takes the factory two weeks to adjust. On the GoldieBlox pegboard, the holes will cool at different rates which adds additional challenges in getting it just right. To make a long story short it is really hard to make a construction toy! There is a reason why LEGO is a category leader because they’ve had many years to perfect that little brick. That little LEGO brick is a piece of engineering genius.

“Going back and forth with the factory in China, which we had to do several times, was a really frustrating and lengthy process. I had to fly out to China twice and I was running out of time. I had promised I would deliver the toy in February and I felt that was more than enough time. I wasn’t expecting it was going to take so long to get the construction pieces working properly.”

Morehead: With your first GoldieBlox shipments, and all the attention you’ve received as a result of your successful Kickstarter project, you are at a tipping point where GoldieBlox is starting to become a real company. What new challenges you are facing?

GoldieBlox Founder Debbie Sterling with the First Shipment of GoldieBlox Toys

Debbie Sterling with the first shipment

Sterling: “I think we have an awesome business opportunity. Our two main competitors are LEGO Friends and MEGA BLOKS Barbie. What they’re showing is that construction toys for girls is a real category, which wasn’t the case two years ago. They are paving the way, but at the same time they have the same approach which is very traditional, gender-stereotypic: beauty parlor, pony stable stuff. GoldieBlox really stands out next to them which I think is great. We have a unique offering. If a girl likes playing with LEGO Friends we believe her parents will want her to have GoldieBlox too. And if LEGO Friends is too girly for their daughter, then GoldieBlox is perfect. I believe we have an attractive, unique, differentiated product to offer.

“I do believe that society is shifting away from ‘princess’ and that we’re just starting to see a princess backlash; I’m also seeing a lot of backlash against boy vs. girl toys, and a move towards gender neutral toys and gender-bending toys. We were just mentioned in Time Magazine so I feel like we’re making history. I think we’re on the crest of the wave.

“From a business standpoint what I’m dealing with right now is that building a toy company is very capital intensive. We have a lot of demand from stores around the world, but we have a brand new product – we just shipped a week ago – so my main priority right now is capturing as much feedback as we can to make the product as great as it can be. I’m also working on our financial projections, making sure we produce enough product this year to meet the demand, and raise enough money to produce the product so that we can grow the company in a responsible way.”

Morehead: Kickstarter has had several highly visible success stories, and yours is one of them. What was your experience leveraging Kickstarter to raise money for your idea?

Sterling: “I decided to use Kickstarter as a vehicle because I had already raised a friends and family ‘C’ round which enabled me to incorporate and start building some intellectual property. I wanted to find out if anyone but my parents thought that GoldieBlox was a good idea so Kickstarter was a way to put the idea of GoldieBlox out to the world and get feedback. I also wanted to know if a $30 price point was something people were willing to pay, and to see if this construction toy for girls was something people wanted. The alternate route, which is what young, fledgling toy companies had to do before Kickstarter, was to fund a minimum production run, go to Toy Fair and hope that stores would want to carry the product.

“For me, I was in a tricky position because up until that point I had met with stores and discovered there was this ‘industry secret’ that construction toys for girls don’t sell, and that companies that had tried in the past failed. I was really worried going in that the toy industry people wouldn’t be ready for the idea, but that by going through Kickstarter I could prove that people really wanted what GoldieBlox had to offer.”

Morehead: So the people funding GoldieBlox through Kickstarter were also your first customers.

Sterling: “Yes, the majority of our Kickstarter backers pre-ordered a toy.”

Morehead: With all the coverage and attention GoldieBlox has generated, and the nature of Silicon Valley, have you attracted a lot of interest from investors?

Sterling: “That’s exactly what I’m dealing with now. I’m so glad to have launched on Kickstarter, which generated tons of press and opened up distribution channels. There is a lot of promise and excitement around GoldieBlox so now I’m deciding who the right partners are; each decision about accepting a new investor or advisor or hiring a new employee is a critical choice at this point. I’m meeting a bunch of people to determine who aligns with my vision. A lot of people see a large financial opportunity, which there is, but this is really a social mission for me so I have to find people who also believe in the mission. I want people who can help me grow the brand in a responsible way, with integrity.”

Morehead: Do you have plans to take the GoldieBlox concept and create a smartphone or tablet app?

Sterling: “That is part of our strategy. We’re thinking about apps in the beginning as purely a brand-building and exposure vehicle, as a way to offer GoldieBlox for free to everybody; but in the future I’m really excited about investing a lot in that platform, in games and experiences, to teach software engineering. When we have created awesome educational and entertaining experiences I expect charging a fee so we can continue to invest.”

Morehead: What advice do you have for parents, students and educators?

GoldieBlox Founder Debbie Sterling 2

Debbie playing with GoldieBlox

Sterling: “I recommend boys and girls take at least one engineering course in their freshman year of college – I think it should be a requirement – because you never know. I think everyone should give engineering a try. Engineering gets a bad rap; I hated the idea of engineering until I actually tried it. If students can try engineering earlier they should, if those options are available. Since STEM has become such a huge initiative for the Obama administration there have been more after school programs, which provides great opportunities.

“I think we should change the word ‘engineering’ because it sounds so overly technical, boring and intimidating, something that is only for geniuses, and that just isn’t true. What engineering really teaches you is how to make stuff. You acquire the skills to invent anything. Engineering is probably one of the most empowering skill sets and I can’t think of anything more meaningful than taking an idea and making it real. Whether that is a computer program, or an app, or a website, or a toy, or solar panels, or whatever, engineers make all the things that we use in our everyday lives, the things that are advancing society, and that are making our world a better place. Engineering is an incredibly rewarding career path and it is also a lucrative career path – engineers make more money than other fields.

“Engineering is also an exciting, fun and creative career path. When I first heard of engineering I thought it was only math and science, and that didn’t appeal to me because I’m incredibly creative. I love writing and the Arts, so I thought if I ended up doing engineering that I would have to ignore my creative side, but that’s entirely untrue. Engineering is incredibly creative, and we need more creative engineers. We need engineers who understand people, because when you are building things, you are building things for people. I know that a lot of girls are incredibly intuitive, and social, and love being around people and understanding their needs, and I believe engineers that can do that are better engineers.

“We need more women in engineering. It’s a shame that so many things in our lives are built by engineers and half of our population is female, yet far less than half of engineers are women. I dream of when we finally have equal representation in the building of our world, and that when that happens the world will be a more fair and better place. We need both the male and female perspective working together, solving huge problems and building our future.”

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