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Forget Barbie: Female engineer revolutionizes toy industry

Sarah Lybrand

Debbie Sterling doesn’t just want to sell toys – she wants to give every girl in America a tool belt for building a better future. So she developed a toy featuring a female character who solves engineering problems using storytelling and construction sets.

Sterling founded GoldieBlox, recently named People’s Choice and Educational Toy of the Year at the New York Toy Fair. This Oakland, Calif.-based company aimed at getting young girls excited about science and engineering blew past their fundraising goals in 2012, raising over $285,000 on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. And in about a year’s time, the company has gone from a few household scraps put together in Sterling’s living room to a complete box-set on the shelves of Toys R Us, Target, and over a thousand mom-and-pop toy stores across the U.S. and Canada. Though the company won't disclose their annual revenue to date, it's safe to say that Goldie is poised to be a household name among grade school girls. 

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Sterling’s ultimate aim is to spark girls’ interest in engineering and technology. “Around age 8 is when you see girls losing interest in [STEM subjects like science, technology], engineering and math,” she says. Sterling thinks this is because for the past hundred years or so, construction toys have been overtly marketed to boys – a fact which becomes immediately apparent when you step into the toy aisle at your local box store: pink princesses and Barbie for girls, sitting right beside educational characters like Bob the Builder and Sid the Science Kid marketed to boys. This reality hasn't changed much from when Sterling was a kid, so much so that when her math teacher suggested she study engineering in college, Sterling was confused why her teacher thought she’d make a good train conductor. “I really had no idea what engineering was!” she says.

As a freshman at Stanford University, however, she took her teacher's advice and enrolled in Mechanical Engineering 101. “The second I stepped inside, I nearly turned around and walked out,” she recalls. With few women in the class, she found herself alone in small working groups, often feeling intimidated and ignored by her male classmates. Sterling says she still faces some of that today. “I think this is what fuels my fire.”

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It was during an “ideas brunch” among Sterling’s forward-thinking San Francisco friends that a fellow female engineer lamented that there were no “pink legos” out there for girls. It was then that the idea for GoldieBlox began to take shape. “As she was talking it was like an epiphany, that this was what I was born to do. Ever since that day it was all I could think about,” Sterling says.

Sterling began prototyping with materials she found at home, and signed up for babysitting gigs to test her ideas on real kids. From these experiments she discovered that girls favored reading, often naming books among their favorite toys. “And I thought, why not combine reading and building?”

Though Sterling and her friend planned to go into business together, ultimately it was Sterling who quit her job in the fall of 2012. She launched GoldiBlox with a Kickstarter video featuring an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, set to the Beastie Boys song, “Girls.” The video went viral, and though the start-up was slapped with a lawsuit for the spoof (the case was dismissed in April), this minor controversy only further catapulted Goldie into the limelight. “We ended up selling tens of thousands of toys online, before we’d actually ever made and shipped a single one,” says Sterling.

Perhaps it's been beating out the 15,000 rivals to win Intuit’s 2014 Small Business, Big Game contest that has been Goldie Blox's biggest break, becoming the very first small business to air a national ad during the Super Bowl. And Sterling refuses to stop there – she hopes Goldie will become a character brand that will one day include toys, cartoons and videogames. “I want her to be a role model for kids. Girls deserve that -- we shouldn’t underestimate them.”

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Video produced by Sarah Lybrand; co-produced by Jessica Ashford & Emily Sharnhorst. Production by Michael Manas, Richard Rella, David Dellaria, Maryann Vanderventor, and Matthew Smith. Edited by Sean Elms. Graphics by Todd Tanner and Adam Saul For Yahoo! Studios. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Peter Gorenstein.