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Debbie Sterling, a 30-year-old Stanford engineering grad, wanted to create a toy that taught young girls how stuff works, the kind of toy she wished she had had as a kid. But everyone said it wouldn't sell: "I was told you can't fight nature." Now nature's looking different. In seven months last year, GoldieBlox--a building kit with an accompanying storybook that brings to life engineering principles like leverage--went from Kickstarter success to the shelves of Toys "R" Us and Amazon, where its products are bestsellers. Sterling has sold more than 100,000 toys.

Last spring she was picked as part of an Intuit national ad campaign, spurred along by several viral videos she produced. The best-known clip, "Princess Machine," was a parody of the Beastie Boys' ditty "Girls" and featured a Rube Goldberg machine made out of princess toys. The video caused a legal fight with the Beastie Boys over music rights, but in the process, Sterling, a former brand strategist, engineered major publicity--more than her startup had ever gotten. This year, GoldieBlox is launching four more physical toys and a digital product, and, hopefully, sparking inspiration for countless future female engineers. "The mission is greater than the company," Sterling says.