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This article was written on 13 Mar 2015, and is filled under Engineering.

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Debbie Sterling: Inventor and CEO of GoldieBlox

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Debbie Sterling is the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox. She graduated from Stanford with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Product Design. Bothered by how few women there were in her program, Debbie became obsessed with the notion of “disrupting the pink aisle” with a toy that would introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age, and so GoldieBlox was born. You can see her TED talk about inspiring the next generation of female engineers here.

OM: How would you describe an average day at work?

DS: There is no such thing as an average day of work at GoldieBlox! In the true, typical entrepreneurial style, every day is a new adventure. On any given day, I could be doing anything from a photoshoot for a magazine to a crazy, creative brainstorm with post-it notes all over the walls and the floor, to play-testing with little kids where we’re observing them interacting with our prototypes, to a network meeting with one of our CEOs, to a strategy meeting with my executives. It’s so different all the time, because I do play many roles. But that’s part of the fun of it – it’s really exciting every day. Literally not a day goes by that there isn’t a new challenge!

OM: What would you say was the hardest part about becoming an engineer?

DS: I think the hardest part was that, my entire life leading up to when I declared engineering as my major, things always seemed to come very naturally to me. I was a naturally good artist, I was a naturally good writer, or so I thought. I was one of those annoying ‘Straight A’ students, and once I chose engineering, it was really the first time I had to actually try hard.

There were many times that I felt like dropping it, because I’d look around and see that I was one of very few women, and it seemed like everything came naturally to the guys in my classes. I thought ‘well, maybe if it doesn’t come naturally to me, maybe I shouldn’t be doing it.’

A turning point for me was when I decided I was going to just try as hard as I could, and I wouldn’t give up until I felt I’d really tried. Even if that was scary, because if you do really try and you don’t get it, then you feel stupid – right? But I decided to really try, and I’d be at the library studying until 2 or 3am in the morning, and I looked around and all those guys who were in my classes that I thought it was just easy for, they were there studying too. And then I realised that it wasn’t about being born with some innate skill, that it’s just challenging stuff and you really have to stick with it and apply yourself. For me, I think, even though I wasn’t that Straight A student anymore, I was really challenged. And when I was able to solve those things I didn’t think I’d be able to, it was really rewarding.

OM: What would you say is the best part of the job?

DS: There are two. Number one is the kids that we’re inspiring. We’re really empowering girls, and building their sense of confidence, giving them new skills, new vocabulary. It’s really fun to see how the GoldieBlox toys are changing the way they see the world, and really inspiring them to build and invent stuff. And that’s fun! Because the construction pieces sort of mimic household objects, we hope that girls will see that, and it’ll inspire them to see things around the house and make things that they come up with. It’s actually been working, it’s absolutely fascinating. We have stories of girls saying ‘mom, don’t throw away that tape dispenser! We could use it to build a machine like Goldie!’ You couldn’t even make this stuff up, it’s really amazing.
Then my second favourite part of the job is the team that I’m building, our company. I’ve been so fortunate to get to work with some incredibly talented, amazing people who are just as passionate about what we’re doing as I am. I’m just blown away by how they’ve been able to take my kernel of an idea and original, very rough, ramshackle prototype, and turn it into something that I think is going to revolutionise the way that girls play, and the way parents think about what their girls are capable of.

OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?

DS: I’m definitely treated differently.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that there are very few women in leadership roles, very few women entrepreneurs, very few women CEOs.

So on the one hand, it’s actually great. Because there are so few, I feel I have a bit of a leg up, because women in tech and engineering is a bit of a hot topic right now. So I feel that I get invited to attend, or speak at, more events than I even know what to do with. That helps to get the message out, and I enjoy sharing my story, because it inspires other women.
On the flip side, I think that what gets you ahead is finding really successful people who’ve done it before, who want to really support you, open up their rolodex, make connections, support you in whatever way they can. I’ve been fortunate enough to find some of those people, but a lot of times I think it’s harder for women to find those people, because a lot of those people are men. And men find it easier to support and evangelise what they know, and if you’re a woman doing a business that is traditionally outside the comfort zone of women, you’ll find that there is a bit of an added challenge.

OM: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?

DS:

The best piece of advice was actually from Steve Jobs, who spoke at my college graduation – he gave our commencement address. He told us all to never settle until we find our passion. That was honestly the best advice, because after I graduated, I didn’t know what my passion was. I’ve gone out and talked to younger and older people who are still trying to find it, and they almost feel like they get the advice of ‘just do what you’re passionate about and be happy’. I’m very fortunate that I’ve found mine, and it’s because I didn’t settle.

I tried many different jobs and roles after I graduated, and I liked things ok but I wasn’t obsessed with them. Once I hit that rut – and I know many people who hit that rut – then I did a 180 degrees turn. Which is risky, because you find that you’re on a career path based on your resume from the former job, and it’s kind of scary to try something completely different. But I did a complete 180 turn about three times in my career before I came up with the idea for GoldieBlox.

OM: What advice would you give to anyone looking to become an engineer?

DS: I would tell them: prepare to be challenged, and don’t let it intimidate you. Don’t ever feel stupid, it’s hard for everybody. For me, I’m a very collaborative learner, and I learn best in group settings. A lot of times in my engineering classes – well, aspiring future engineers may experience this feeling like they’re supposed to work it out by themselves. The best advice I could give, to a collaborative learner like me, is really: don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t understand the material. Find a support network and people you can work on things with, don’t just give up.

I thought you had to be some kind of genius to do engineering, and I don’t think that’s true. You just need to work hard and apply yourself. For me, it was critical to work in groups and make it more social.

OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?

DS: That’s hard for me to say. It’s easier for me to say that we’re constantly making mistakes, because we’re doing things that we’ve never done before. What’s keeping us moving forward is just how open we are to listening to feedback and readjusting as we go, and continually improving upon what we did, rather than being kind of close-minded about it and sticking the course.
I guess one mistake that we made is that, last year, we put up a video online that went viral. It had millions of views, and we ended up completely selling out of toys. We then found out that we won a free commercial during the Superbowl, and we had to make as many toys as humanly possible in a short amount of time. In order to do that, we had to rush pretty quickly, and I think in retrospect, we would have gone more slowly. But, you know, it was the circumstances. So now, as we move forward, every time we do a production run, we get feedback and we make tweaks to improve, and we make it better. I’m actually really excited now, because we’re just launching in the UK this month, and luckily for everyone there, all of the GoldieBlox products that are coming out have now had multiple rounds of revision, so they’re a lot better than the very first batch that came out in the US.

OM: What does success mean to you?

DS: What I think success looks like for GoldieBlox is inspiring girls, and boys, and their parents to rethink what girls are capable of. I started this because I wanted to tackle the gender gap in engineering and technology, and I certainly hope that down the road, maybe 10 years from now, I might get a letter from a girl saying ‘I played with Goldie and the Dunk Tank, and it sparked a passion in me that I didn’t know I had’. Whether that’s in engineering, or photography , or whatever – I just hope that it broadens their minds beyond the stereotypes right now that they’re inundated with from children’s media.

OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?

DS: It’s funny actually, because I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’, and I actually really identified with the way she put it, which was that when she was younger, she didn’t want to identify herself as a feminist, because the word had gotten so taboo. It sounded like if you’re a feminist, you hate men, but that now she calls herself a feminist in the sense that it’s not about hating men, it’s about equality. So with that definition, I’d definitely consider myself a feminist. And my feminist wish is, by the time I have, let’s say…granddaughters, that if they said they wanted to be an engineer, or be the next Mark Zuckerberg, or be the President of the United States, that no one would think that was weird.

See the Goldieblox site here and tweet the team here.

Resources:

The Society of Women Engineers

Women’s Engineering Society

Wise Campaign

3 Comments

  1. Amanda Davie
    13th March 2015

    Very inspirational.

    Next week I am going to give a careers talk to the secondary school (all girls) I attended, and I will be banging the drum for more girls to go into engineering, computer science and technology.

    I have two sons and am determined to raise them as feminists i.e. unwavering supporters of women and of their dreams and ambitions.

    Do we know if Goldie Box has any plans to come to the UK?

  2. @katieantoniou
    13th March 2015

    Thanks Amanda! GoldieBlox is in the UK now- you can order it on Amazon.co.uk. Maybe drop them a tweet to ask about any other stockists?

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