Cover Story

How Debbie Sterling Is Inspiring a Generation of Problem Solvers

by Lisa Wirthman

Debbie Sterling believes in the power of problem-solving, both for entrepreneurs and for young girls. Here’s how her company GoldieBlox took the toy aisle by storm.

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Debbie Sterling has never been your typical engineer.

In one of her first undergraduate engineering classes at Stanford University, she was tasked with designing a solution to an everyday problem. Her classmates focused on more traditional engineering projects, such as robots and wind turbines, but Sterling took aim at a more practical problem: What to do with valuables while taking a dip in the water at the beach?

Her answer: Take them with you. Sterling, today 34 and the founder and CEO of popular toy company GoldieBlox, designed a fashionable swim belt with waterproof pockets that would let swimmers forge the waves with their wallets in tow.

That assignment taught her that engineering wasn’t just “old men doing algorithms at chalkboards.” It could be fun and creative. Now Sterling is delivering that same message to young girls with GoldieBlox toys — build-it sets not unlike LEGO bricks and Erector Sets. The goal is to inspire more female participation in engineering (just 14 percent of the world’s engineers are women) and other STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math).

So far, it’s working. GoldieBlox has sold more than a million toys since its launch in 2012 and has forced toy companies everywhere to consider whether their products are too heavily marketed toward one gender or the other. “We’ve seen the big toy companies develop products that were more empowering for girls,” she says, “which was in large part because of the noise that we made.”

Breaking Down the Boy’s-Club Barrier

In her engineering classes in college, Sterling got her first glimpse of the challenges that come with being a woman in a male-dominated field.

“Sometimes even my teachers laughed at my ideas,” she says. “I constantly compared myself to my male classmates. I just felt like I wasn’t good enough, and my ideas weren’t good enough.”

Later Sterling realized that she had different ideas because she had a different perspective, a woman’s, and one that could work to her advantage not only as an engineer and marketer (Sterling has a degree in mechanical engineering/product design and worked in marketing before starting GoldieBlox), but as an entrepreneur.

“I wouldn’t have been able to start GoldieBlox if I hadn’t once been a little girl — and been able to bring that to the engineering challenge,” she says.

A more equitable gender mix in engineering likely would serve us all well. Better solutions to nearly any problem can be found when the problem is tackled by people with diverse perspectives, according to Sterling. She cites early air bags invented by male engineers, which did not do an adequate job of protecting women, as an example. According to a 2011 report in the American Journal of Public Health, women were found to be 47 percent more likely than men to sustain serious injuries from the same crash.

“We still have a long way to go to get to gender equity in the field,” she says.

Disrupting the Pink Aisle

Sterling sparked a plan to accelerate progress in 2011. Over brunch one day, an engineer friend frustrated with the lack of women in her field recalled playing with her older brother’s hand-me-down construction sets as a child and asked, “Why do girls play with dolls and boys build?”

“Fireworks went off,” Sterling told a crowd at WIE Network in 2014, and she resolved to bring to market construction toys for girls. “It was what I felt like I was born to do.”

“The pink aisle was the ironing boards and the tea sets and the princesses and the ponies,” says Sterling. “We wanted to make a statement and say girls are more than just princesses; they deserve toys that are just as cool and challenging as the boys are getting.”

Goldie is the star of the brand’s narrative-driven building sets. She’s a problemsolver with a diverse cast of friends breaking the mold of the stereotypical boygenius engineer.

Each GoldieBlox kit comes with a building set and storybook centered on a dilemma Goldie is trying to fix. Goldie builds a belt drive to help her dog Nacho chase his tail in one toy set; she invents a one-minute movie player to save a local film festival in another. Girls (or boys) follow along with the story by building a similar contraption, even making the mistakes Goldie makes before she finds a solution.

“Goldie is somebody who’s very curious and excited and wants to change the world,” says Sterling. “But she doesn’t always have the answers, so she has to tinker and try and fail and try again.”

GoldieBlox the brand didn’t require too much tinkering to catch on. Sterling launched her company in 2012 with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that aimed to raise $150,000 — enough to pay for an initial production run of 5,000 units. GoldieBlox was an instant hit, generating about $1 million in preorders and an initial production run of more than 40,000 units, according to Sterling. The toys have since exploded onto shelves of major retailers like Target and Toys R’ Us and in the process have sparked a movement to “rethink pink” and remove gender labeling from toy aisles altogether.

Similarly, in a nod to the effect toys can have on a child’s aspirations and sense of identity, toy companies have retooled their messaging. Warner Bros. Consumer Products and DC Entertainment launched a new collection of DC Super Hero Girls action figures last year, Mattel made long-awaited changes to its Barbie Dolls in July by introducing three new body types and multiple skin tones and hair colors, and Hasbro now markets its Easy-Bake Oven to boys.

Celebrating Failure

As of this writing, GoldieBlox has sold toys through more than 6,000 major retailers across the globe. Other signs of success: a $4 million Super Bowl spot in 2014 and numerous awards the same year, including the Toy Industry Association’s Toy of the Year and Apple’s iOS App of the Year awards.

Sterling herself has received accolades for her big ideas. She was named a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship in 2015, and in 2016 she was named one of 25 “People Shaping Retail’s Future” by the National Retail Foundation.

“I am really proud because I feel like we achieved so much in such a short amount of time in terms of really transforming an industry,” says Sterling. “But I also just feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what is possible for GoldieBlox.” None of this is to say the brand’s success came easy.

In 2014 GoldieBlox shipped a defective product with building pieces that didn’t fit together. The mishap threatened to undermine her young customers’ enthusiasm for engineering, but Sterling got ahead of the problem. She reached out to customers with a personal note of apology from Goldie, an offer for a free building set, and an explanation of how the company had re-engineered its toys to fix the mistake.

There were internal challenges, too. As the company grew, Sterling was so focused on getting toys to customers that critical parts of the business — managing people, building culture — sometimes took a back seat.

When Sterling learned through an anonymous survey that employees did not feel that the GoldieBlox culture tolerated failure, she was shocked. “We’re trying to teach little girls that it’s okay to fail,” she says, “and in many ways, that’s the heart of GoldieBlox the company and the brand.”

Sterling introduced a new session into her weekly all-hands meeting, where employees and executives share stories of failures and lessons learned. “We found that that was a really simple way to start celebrating and tolerating failure.”

“We wanted to make a statement and say girls are more than just princesses; they deserve toys that are just as cool and challenging as the boys are getting.”

Debbie Sterling

Goldie Goes Global

Sterling hopes to transform Goldie the engineer into a global icon for children, similar to Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer.

“When kids become obsessed with a character, it really influences what interests they start to have or what they may want to grow up to be,” says Sterling.

If she succeeds, Sterling believes that children will want to emulate Goldie and embrace engineering in every aspect of their lives.

“That’s the long-term vision,” she adds. “We still have a long way to go.”

5 Books on Debbie Sterling’s Reading List

Start Something That Matters

The story of social entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, the man behind TOMS Shoes and its One For One business model, which donates a pair of shoes for every pair sold. In true Mycoskie fashion, with each book purchased, he gives new book to a child in need.

The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters

Millennial career expert Adam Smiley Poswolsky offers advice and practical exercises for 20- and 30-somethings who want to learn how to create meaningful change by pursuing work that matters — all while being able to pay the bills.

Ready Player One

Sci-fi novelist Ernest Cline sets his debut novel in 2044, where teenager Wade Watts seeks escape from a desolate existence in a virtual-reality game called OASIS. To win the game — and the fortune left behind by its deceased creator — he must solve puzzles based on pop culture clues from the 80s.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

Julia Cameron’s influential book on creativity outlines a 12-week spiritual approach to restoring self-confidence and boosting productivity by conquering blocks that hold us back, such as fear and jealousy.

Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech

An inside look at the innovative women who are building and investing in the next generation of tech startups, by journalists Heather Cabot and Samantha Parent Walravens. Hitting the shelves in May 2017, it features an interview with Sterling herself.