Photos: Courtesy of Goldieblox

Q&A: Princesses vs. Engineers

Debbie Sterling, CEO of Goldieblox, looks to excite young women to engineering through toys


Goldieblox burst onto the scene in 2012 as the first small business in history with a Super Bowl ad. Now, its CEO, Debbie Sterling, one of Business Insider’s “30 Women Who Are Changing the World,” looks to tackle the gender gap in STEM with stories and building sets featuring a young engineer named Goldie Blox. She recently served as a judge for USC Viterbi’s “Next MacGyver” competition.

You must get a lot of feedback from parents and kids, particular young girls, on what the GoldieBlox toys have meant to them. Tell me about a specific story or response that’s lingered in your mind.

I recently got a letter from a mom who said she had been struggling because she had enrolled her daughter in a science camp, but she didn’t want to go because the camp was almost entirely boys. It was a constant struggle. But then, she bought her daughter GoldieBlox. They played it together over the weekend and had a blast. When it was time to go to camp on Monday, her daughter wasn’t having her usual crying fit. When her mom asked her what was going on, if she was nervous about camp, she said, “No mom, I’m all set for camp now. I have GoldieBlox. I know what I’m doing.” I was so moved that GoldieBlox didn’t just give her daughter a couple new engineering lessons; it gave her newfound confidence.

If I had been a fly on the wall during the famous “idea brunch” over which the Goldieblox idea was born, what would I have heard? Can you give us a glimpse of that conversation?

You probably would’ve heard a ‘ding!’ go off in my head as my mind started exploding with excitement. When my friend talked about how she had played with her brothers’ building sets as a child, it practically knocked me over. I knew in that moment that this was my passion and I couldn’t wait to get started.

On August 8, Target announced they were no longer separating “boys’ toys” from “girls’ toys.” This, largely in response to an outraged tweet about Target separating “building sets” from “girl’s building sets.” Was this something of a vindication for you?  

It honestly felt like a huge win for us and what we’re trying to accomplish! Step by step, we are gaining ground. We have a long way to go, but we are changing the field by empowering one girl at a time and igniting a worldwide conversation about breaking gender stereotypes.

When you first began pitching Glodieblox to the toy industry, I know you initially encountered some resistance. What were people saying and how did you respond?   

People basically told me that I was crazy, that construction toys for girls don’t sell, and that my idea didn’t have any market demand. After hearing this, I have to admit, I was pretty dejected. I had quit my job and was living off my life savings. What if they were right? What if this was never going to work?

But I was determined to make this dream a reality, and if the traditional route wasn’t going to work for me, I was going to have to create my own luck. If I couldn’t get those toy stores to buy it, I would need to get the message out to the masses myself. I decided to crowdfund GoldieBlox on Kickstarter, and we ended up raising our goal of $150,000 in only four days. Turns out that parents were inspired by the idea, and agreed that their girls deserve more than the pink aisle.

In many ways, “The Next MacGyver” competition (in which we were honored to include you as a judge) shares a similar objective – how to dispel some stereotypes about engineers on a national level – by leveraging popular culture. In both cases, stories play a key role. What inspired you to integrate a Goldieblox book series with the construction sets?   

I did a lot of research on children’s gender differences and play patterns. I talked to pediatricians, neuroscientists, parents, and teachers and just spent a lot of time watching kids play. The biggest theme that emerged was that girls really love characters, stories, and reading. While boys will build for the sake of building, girls want to know why. What are we building? Who’s it for? What’s the story behind it? Then came my simple “a ha” moment – what if I combined a building set with a story? I invented a character named Goldie Blox who would be an engineer. She’d go on adventures and along the way; she’d solve problems by building simple machines. As girls read along, they could be like Goldie and build what she builds, learning engineering principles along the way. I knew this was how I could introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age and really make it stick.

Yannis Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has said that “diversity is not a political slogan – it’s an essential ingredient for innovation.” Can you talk a little about this?

Engineers are responsible for building the world around us: from the latest tech and apps to bridges and buildings. But when these kinds of things are built by only a small representation of the population, we miss out on the creativity and innovation that can only exist when you bring together an eclectic mix of backgrounds, beliefs, and life experiences. Different perspectives are important if we want to build a more balanced future.

“The Next MacGyver” competition was created to challenge some stereotypes about engineers – who they are, what they do, what they look like, how they affect our lives. If you were talking to a group of middle school girls, what are three things about engineers that you think would surprise them?

Before college, I didn’t even know what engineering was. But when I took Mechanical Engineering 101, fell in love, and realized that I could actually utilize my creative and artistic side (another one of my favorite classes was jewelry engineering). So the biggest surprise is that engineering isn’t this unattainable, genius-only boys club. It’s a field that has so many different possibilities and has the potential to have such incredible impact on this world. Engineering wasn’t at all what I had expected, but I am so thankful for all the opportunities it’s opened up for me.

OK, brainstorming time: if you were to submit an entry into “The Next MacGyver” competition, what would be your idea for a TV show with a female engineer as main character?

It’s not secret that my passion lies with getting kids interested in STEM at an early age. I’d love to see a show for girls that passes the Bechdel test, focuses on solving real-world problems, and is centered around a group of strong female protagonists that can be great role models for boys and girls alike.

Tell me about a TV show or film that inspired you in regards to engineering or (if none particularly did) what you wish you had seen in terms of representation of female engineers on TV.

I love the show, Mythbusters, especially the idea of dispelling popular beliefs through science, and sometimes that means having to fail and try again. In engineering, and in life, failure is a huge part of any great success. No real innovation happens without it.

Kari Byron has been a long-time supporter of GoldieBlox and it was so great to see her on the show.

Both my daughters (5 and 7) are Goldie fans. What’s next for your company?

We have lots of exciting things on the way, particularly in the digital space. My vision for GoldieBlox is for us to become an iconic brand that spans toys, books, digital, and merchandise and empowers girls around the world to do and build amazing things.