Talking (Toy) Shop with Debbie Sterling
The GoldieBlox Founder and CEO is leading the way for a new generation of female engineers—your daughter included.
To say Debbie Sterling started a toy company would hardly be doing her justice. The Stanford engineer has created a social movement that’s rallied on online community and is revolutionizing the way toymakers view the marketplace. GoldieBlox—a line of construction toys and books created for girls—aims to solve the problem of the decreasing number of women in math and science-related fields like engineering. Accompanied by an arsenal of clever calls to action (Disrupt the pink aisle! Build the future! Rethink Pink!), Debbie is inspiring a new generation of inventors, little girls who will build their own playhouses before moving into them and stocking them with princess costumes and baby dolls. The road to the toy store didn’t come easily. “When we first launched, there were a lot of question marks from folks in the industry who didn’t think the GoldieBlox concept had mainstream appeal," Debbie says. "Going the traditional route wasn’t an option because I was told flat-out that girls like dolls and boys like building. Construction toys for girls don’t sell.” Undeterred, she took her idea to Kickstarter in 2012. She was fully funded in three days. “A community rose up to support us and it spread like wildfire over the internet. As a result, toymakers have started to rethink what the modern customer wants—and hopefully they’ll stop underestimating our little girls and the things they’re capable of.” In the two years since her Kickstarter campaign, GoldieBlox has gone from a viral phenomenon to a major player in the toy industry—the sets and action figures are carried in more than 6,000 stores worldwide. We spoke to Debbie about the impetus of her brand, the compliment you should stop giving your daughter and the importance of raising a new generation of girls who will give the boys in engineering a run for their money.
The toy she wanted when she was a girlI grew up playing with dolls and ponies and dress-up costumes. Construction and engineering-based toys were very boy-oriented. Since most engineers are males, most of the construction toymakers were male and they were building things from their perspective. The construction toys for girls were pretty much boys’ toys painted pink.
Toys make an impact on who you become
The toys you play with as a kid start to form your identity. Many engineers and architects will tell you they grew up playing with Legos and Erector sets. People who score high on spatial skills tests often grew up playing with construction toys. Eden Full's favorite toy as a kid was the solar car bug. Today, she engineers solar panels. Many people I know in fashion grew up playing with dolls.
Beware of Barbie
Research shows that girls who play with fashion dolls see fewer career opportunities for themselves than boys. In a study conducted by Oregon State, a researcher said, "Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls’ ideas about their place in the world. It creates a limit on the sense of what’s possible for their future."
We need female engineers in our future workforce
Currently, only 14-percent of engineers are women. There were more female engineers in the 80s than there are now. The fastest growing jobs in the United States are in engineering and technology. We need women in our future workforce.
The best solutions come from a diverse team
Engineers are solving the biggest problems we face in the world. They’re creating products, services and technology that we use every day—things that change people’s lives. When half of the population is female, but you have mostly men solving all of our problems, the solutions won’t be as good or as reflective of our society as a whole.
The boy geniuses
The engineers kids are exposed to today are always boy geniuses: Jimmy Neutron, Bob the Builder, Handy Manny and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Goldie was created to break the mold. She is inspired by Pippi Longstocking, Eloise and Punky Brewster.
Disrupting the pink aisleThe way toys are marketed to girls is done in such a limited way. It’s all about beauty, fashion and being a princess. It’s so overwhelming. There are construction toys for girls, but the goal is to build a salon. There’s a chemistry set that’s about making perfume. With GoldieBlox, we’re creating stories with characters that break the stereotypes. Goldie and her friends aren’t designing beauty parlors—they’re solving problems and building wacky contraptions to help people.
The gender difference in play
Boys will build for the sake of building. They’ll build something up, smash it against the wall and build it again. Girls tend to have a strong affinity for narrative-based play. They love stories and characters. They’ll build something but they want the context behind it: What are we building? Who’s it for? Where is it? What problem does it solve?
A new way to think of engineering
Girls like nurturing—it’s why baby dolls are so popular. Girls like helping people and they want to make the world a better place. Engineering helps people. It makes the world a better place, but it’s not presented that way.
Catch them before they lose interest
Our construction set comes with a storybook. By tapping into girls’ strong verbal skills, the set bolsters confidence in spatial awareness while giving girls the tools to build and create amazing things. Without fostering this aptitude for spatial skills, girls lose interest in subjects like science, technology, engineering and math as early as age eight.
Don’t just tell little girls they look prettyI catch myself doing this all the time. I’ll see a little girl, a toddler, and tell her how beautiful she is. It’s not even a conversation with boys, but from infancy, girls are encouraged and motivated by their beauty instead of how smart they are, how well they did something or how hard they tried. Praise those efforts right away—it’s never too early to start.
Find more ideas on Facebook
People are always asking what else they can do to encourage an early appreciation for science, technology, engineering and math. We have a really large and growing Facebook community. We are constantly posting new ideas for activities to do with your children.
The future looks bright
We just took Goldie digital. We launched our first free mobile app with our new GoldieBlox cartoon. We’re creating new toys—and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Goldie can provide a great path for girls to develop really critical skills. To think about the girls we can impact around the world—that’s what gets me up every morning.
Images courtesy of Debbie Sterling.