This is the second in a series called “Friend of The Lily” where we feature women we admire.
GoldieBlox founder and CEO Debbie Sterling didn’t decide to major in engineering until her senior year of high school, when her math teacher suggested it. But when she arrived at Stanford University to major in mechanical engineering and product design, she was surrounded by men. Why?
Only 14 percent of engineers in the United States are women, according to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee. One of the ways to increase that number is to make engineering an attractive option for girls at a young age.
The toy aisle for girls looks different than the one for boys. Girls are more likely to have pink products and dolls, while boys are encouraged to build a log cabin or construct something with a play tool set. Based on the toys they play with, boys are developing spatial skills early on, which helps them excel in math and science.
Sterling’s GoldieBlox challenges gender stereotypes by creating toys, apps, books and videos that encourage similar activities for girls. With the company’s toys, girls can build a cable car or clubhouse. They can learn to hack a portable cell phone charger with an Altoids tin or even play with a female action figure who skydives.
With GoldieBlox, Sterling hopes to pave the way for young girls to feel at home in STEM fields. We caught up with Sterling through email to hear more about how she got GoldieBlox up and running.
The Lily: You mentioned in your TEDx Talk that you didn’t fit in as an engineering student. What did that look like, and how did it affect your schooling? Debbie Sterling: The typical engineering student looked like the Mark Zuckerberg stereotype — male genius. To be one of very few women in my mechanical engineering program felt isolating at times. It even made me consider dropping engineering altogether.
TL: How did you deal with rejection when getting GoldieBlox off the ground? DS: I faced a lot of rejection when I was first getting started. I was told that STEM toys for girls wouldn’t sell because boys like building and girls like pink and princesses. I used those remarks as fuel for the fire. It only reinforced my belief of why this is so badly needed.
TL: What’s one piece of advice you would offer to future female engineers? Future entrepreneurs?
DS: Don’t compare yourself to others. There were many male genius types in my classes — if I constantly compared myself to them, I never would have stayed in the major. I had to believe in myself and that my ideas were unique and worthwhile. I learned this years later.
TL: Tell us about your grandmother, Sterling Sturtevant.
DS: My grandmother Sterling was an art director for Disney and Charles Schulz in the 1950s when very few women had senior roles in animation. She has always been a role model for me. She died before I was born, but my memories of her exist in her incredible artwork I grew up admiring.
TL: Tell us about the #BeLikeHer campaign. Why did GoldieBlox start it?
DS: We know that gender stereotypes can shape children’s interests and career ambitions when they’re young. Kids want to be what they can see, so it’s important to show them that they have limitless possibilities. That’s the message behind #BeLikeHer. It’s a celebration of all women doing incredible things. The video features fearless women who have inspired us in different ways, but they all share one common quality — they’re role models paving the way for the next generation of leaders.
TL: If you had to choose one GoldieBlox product, which one would be your favorite and why?
DS: My favorite product is the Dunk Tank because I love how it allows girls to build something that isn’t stereotypical like a beauty salon, yet still tons of fun. It has a relatable storytelling component — giving a dog a bath. It teaches how hinges work — a simple engineering principle, in a really fun way. And you can play with it over and over again. It never gets old. I love watching girls and boys play with it. We get big laughs every time it comes out.