GoldieBlox's Debbie Sterling On Changing Gender Stereotypes And Taking Big Risks

GoldieBlox has had an enviable rise to success but founder Debbie Sterling had to prove a lot of people wrong on the way to disrupting the pink aisle.

The conventional wisdom is that gender roles are baked into the toy aisle: the blue section was boy geniuses and invention, the pink portion princesses and prettiness. Then came Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling, whose story book and construction toy GoldieBlox aimed to "disrupt the pink aisle."

Her mission took her on a trajectory that most startups can only dream of. Goldie's late 2012 Kickstarter launch made $285,000 in 30 days. After initial issues with getting into toy stores, Sterling struck deals both Toys"R"Us and Target. Then came publicity boosts care of a viral Beastie Boys spoof and the landing of a much coveted spot during the Super Bowl. Now Sterling and her growing team are expanding the product line. We talked to her about how she did it.

An edited version of that interview follows.


I was obsessed with getting more girls interested in engineering and I thought that toys would be a great way to do that. What I was surprised by and challenged by at the beginning was this conventional wisdom of the toy industry—that boys like building and girls like dolls. When I did my first engineering class, I didn't think I would ever like engineering. But when we were building contraptions and mechanisms it was fun; I felt like a kid again, I was playing. I knew that if I made it interesting to girls, they would feel it too.

My idea for an engineering toy for girls was rejected a lot at the beginning by toy store owners and toy companies and even a lot of highly educated people who would argue that biologically girls and boys are just different. Boys are more spatially minded and girls aren't equipped to become engineers—hearing things like that was a huge challenge to overcome. There was a well accepted idea that construction toys for girls don't sell—so by crowdfunding on Kickstarter, it was really a way to show the toy industry that there was market demand.

Boys, girls, and why engineering needs a rebranding

The pink aisle is dominated by gender stereotypes. It's all themed around valuing the way you look and homemaking and decorating, and the boy section is very much superheroes and fighting and building and destroying. Over 90% of the toys that are designed and marketed to girls are static and don't do anything; whereas if you go down the boy aisle, the toys are very dynamic, more educational, can really help develop motor and spatial skills.

You can really see how these play patterns that start out as a kid influence what your passions are and stick with you as you grow up. That's the problem. Male characters are the boy geniuses, mad scientists, builders, or inventors, and the girl characters are princesses and pop stars. Girls and boys are different biologically, but it doesn't mean that girls wouldn't be interested in engineering and math and technology if it were presented to them in a different way—which is what we're doing.

These themes are ingrained in our culture. There are a lot of parents like my mom—when I told her I was going to study engineering, she said 'ew.' Engineering has been presented as this male-dominated, anti-social, non-creative, purely technical, sort-of impossible field. People are intimidated by it or don't know what it is. What's been missing is that engineering gives you the skill set to invent and solve problems and help change the shape of our world.

The problem is that engineering hasn't been presented to kids or parents in a way that would seem appealing. It's a boys' club—and that boys' club starts when you're four years old.

The hardest parts of growing Goldie

As GoldieBlox matured from a prototype in my living room to a company, the biggest challenge was really building an amazing team. The first initial hires are hard to do when you're starting out and you don't have a lot of money to pay anybody. What I did have was a ton of passion for this and a really great social mission, so I was able to find people who were equally as passionate and willing to take a risk.

I had to really be comfortable asking them directly, convincing them to take that leap with me. One of my very first hires was a woman that I used to work with at my last job before I started this company and she had two kids and a mortgage, and she was leaving a very steady job to come work with me at my startup. It took a lot of convincing and a huge leap of faith on her behalf.

An early hire that I made was a woman named Jan who was the former head of operations of Cranium, the board game. She reached out to me because she was a Kickstarter backer and offered to give advice, and I wrote back to her and said, "Thanks a lot, I've got plenty of people giving advice, but I need somebody to actually do the work."

It was pretty audacious of me to even suggest to her that she could come work for me. She was almost twice my age and incredibly over-qualified, but we needed her. Lessons learned there: taking the time and finding the very best people and not being afraid to ask somebody. Some of the people on my team I reached out to be my advisor, and a couple months later they ended up accepting a job.

How to recruit people when all you've got is promise

We have different background and skills, but we're all really passionate about the mission—for the next generation of kids, growing up with opportunities they wouldn't have considered before.

People want to make a dent, they want to have meaningful work, use their skills toward something where they can make a mark. I can provide that for them at GoldieBlox. If you're working for GoldieBlox, every day you get to see handwritten letters and videos and photos and messages from kids—and it's incredibly fulfilling for everybody.

We have these audacious goals, like get an ad on the Super Bowl. We had that written on the wall before we ever heard about the Intuit competition. We have another goal, which we haven't done yet: GoldieBlox on the moon. Another one was $1 million on Kickstarter. We didn't quite make that much but we ended up getting a million dollars in pre-orders a month after Kickstarter. We get fired up about these incredibly audacious goals, and what's surprising is you can actually hit them. When you hit a goal like that, this whole thing becomes all the more believable, that what we're doing is going to work.

[Image: Flickr user kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop)]

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4 Comments

  • Regardless of perceived or actual shortcomings in execution and premise, I admire Debbie for being a trailblazer, and at least trying to offer an alternate vision of educational play for girls. Engineers, designers, and architects are the creators of our physical world. Look around and count how few things within your vision are honestly natural. Chances are, even the trees have been modified and placed for specific Human needs and wants. The fact is that the Human race is split roughly 50/50 along sexes and genders, but the vast majority of people designing and making our world are men. This leads to a world that, by its very existence, works better for and promotes men and a masculine or patriarchal perspective. The struggle for gender equality is not merely a cultural or political one, but extends into the built environment and the objects we interact with every second of our lives. Want a better world for women? Get more women involved in making that world.

  • Steffie Eronen

    On facebook they are never tired to mention that it's perfectly okay to like pink and glitter and princesses - but you need to see the other options. But I fail to see a "princess theme" in the link you provided - the box is purple and one girl wears a very simple tiara but no princess dress. Not even remotely. The other girl is holding a hammer, how is that princess-like? No one is having an issue with sparkle and pink and princesses, most girls like these. The issue is that they aren't given any other options. I see nothing wrong with a packaging that speaks to girls. It's the inside that counts most.

  • Maya Ran

    Did you read the book? here's a quick summary of the book: Ruby (the African-American girl) has been preparing for “the biggest event of the school year”: the “Miss Princess Pageant.” Goldie assures her she’s going to win, but their friend Katinka—a pink dolphin—exhibits mean girl behavior and is determined to with the crown. When Ruby wins the Princess Pageant, Katinka bursts into tears. The girls are kind and want to make her feel better, despite her mean behavior. Ruby and Goldie build a float that Katinka can ride on, too. It ends with the whole town cheering “for Katinka and Ruby, the Miss Princess Engineer.”