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Meet Debbie Sterling, building toys and women engineers

Two conversations stand out in Debbie Sterling’s explanation of her career path. The first is from high school, when a math teacher suggested she consider majo
Credit: Debbie Sterling/Goldieblox
Credit: Debbie Sterling/Goldieblox

Two conversations stand out in Debbie Sterling’s explanation of her career path. The first is from high school, when a math teacher suggested she consider majoring in engineering in college. The second came after Debbie had begun her career as an engineer, and a friend lamented the lack of women in the field and recalled how stealing her brothers’ toys led to her own interest in engineering.

Following that second conversation, Debbie began developing the idea for GoldieBlox, a combined book-and-construction toy targeted toward girls that follows the adventures of main character Goldie as she solves problems by building simple machines and encourages kids to "build along."

Debbie first brought her idea to a toy fair in New York, but was told that "girls only want princesses and dolls and you can’t really fight nature." So she took to Kickstarter, where she hit her $150,000 goal within four days and nearly doubled it by the end of the campaign. GoldieBlox has since been picked up by Toys 'R Us and is now available for purchase at hundreds of retailers. On her development process, Debbie explains, "I was creating the toy I wish I’d had as a kid."

Debbie is our Foot Soldier for fighting gender stereotypes and helping inspire the next generation of women engineers. I had a chance to interview her this week.

Tell me about the process of developing GoldieBlox.

[After having the initial idea] I went to the toy store to get a lay of the land, and that’s when I encountered the pink aisle. And I realized there was this huge opportunity to present girls with something beyond the princesses and that would challenge their minds and expose them to engineering and building, to hopefully instill a passion for it at a young age.

I started doing research into gender differences, cognitive development in children; I read books about the female brain by neuroscientists; I met with science and math elementary school teachers, and nonprofit educators who are doing programs to get kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).

And as I started to dive in and do all of this research, a theme started to emerge that was really fascinating. It was around girls and their verbal skills development. I was reading all this academic research about girls developing their verbal skills quickly and at a young age and having a lot of confidence around reading and having a strong preference for play that involves storytelling and characters.

Girls preferred more context to their play. "What are we building and why and who is it for?"

So I remember the moment when I was sitting in the playroom with my friend and she has three daughters, and there were a bunch of Legos on one side of the room and a pile of books on the other, and the girls were getting bored with the Legos pretty quickly and I asked them what were their favorite toys, and they said books, this is my favorite book, can we read this together? And I just sat there and thought, why are they different? Why can’t they combine the two and make a narrative-based construction toy?

And I came up with the idea of a character named GoldieBlox who stars in a book series, and you read along with her adventures and she solves problems by building machines and so the concept was to read along and go along with GoldieBlox.

Tell me about GoldieBlox the character.

I was really inspired by all the researching and the kids I had been playing with for over that last several months, as well as looking back to my own childhood to develop a girl builder, and it was important to me that she wasn’t some kind of prodigy or genius. I wanted her to be just a regular curious kid. One of the research findings around girls losing interest in science, technology, engineering and math was that there is this belief that you have to be a genius to be good at that stuff.

So I worked really hard to create this character GoldieBlox to be this regular girl, not a genius, but just somebody who’s really open to trying new things, messing it up but trying it again, and somebody who was not a total tomboy but not a princess either, someone who was just in the middle with a lot of different interest.

Tell me a little bit about your experience as a woman studying engineering.

It was challenging. One of the hardest things about studying engineering at Stanford was definitely feeling like a minority. There were many, many classes where I was one of a handful of women in a room of 80 students. And most often our professors were male, our TAs were male; very frequently I would be the only girl in a group of guys and we’d be working on projects together, and I often thought my ideas were ignored or that the assumption was I didn’t have what it takes.

I decided to stay with it regardless and I’m so glad that I did because it was a huge challenge and the fact that I ended up earning that degree - it was the proudest moment of my life, and I think I’m so much prouder because it was hard.

What’s next?

So we now have thousands of girls around the world playing with GoldieBlox, and the best thing that we’ve heard is that they want more. More stories, more pieces, more stuff to build, which is really the best thing you could hear. So we’re working on expanding the line. Right now we only have one product out - our first one, GoldieBlox and the Singing Machine - so we’re racing to introduce new stories and new machines to add to the set to really expand it into a series.

See host Melissa Harris-Perry's Saturday conversation with Sterling below. Also, watch her TEDTalk from April here.