How This 30-Year-Old Engineer Broke Into A Man's World — With A Toy

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ladybitsEMBEDPhoto: Courtesy of LadyBits.
Introducing LadyBits, an ultra-cool collective of tech journalists who look at the world with smart, lady lenses. And since we're always in the market for the best stuff out there, we'll feature its know-how on the regular. Below, check out one of LadyBits' innovator spotlights, prepared especially for Refinery29. This article was original published on September 8, but hot on the heels of GoldieBlox's newest ad for the most awesome majestic erector set of all time — set to the tune of Beastie Boys' 'Girls', no less! — we wanted to give GoldieBlox creator Debbie Sterling the spotlight.

When Debbie Sterling set up her booth at the New York Maker Faire last year, her toy start-up, GoldieBlox, wasn't even a blip on the larger toy industry's radar. Part read-along book, part Erector set, the GoldieBlox series tells the story of Goldie, a young overall-clad engineer. But Sterling’s real innovation isn’t the book-toy combination so much as the idea that this is an engineering toy aimed specifically at girls.

In a world where the “pink aisle” serves as an almanac of our most deeply entrenched stereotypes of girlhood — princesses, beauty, shopping — GoldieBlox disrupts typical childhood perceptions, including one that all scientists are men. Statistically, however, these impressions are accurate. According to a 2013 report by the National Science Foundation, women account for only 30% of engineering and computer-science fields. By integrating a female role model in a toy that pushes girls to think spatially at a young age, she hopes to encourage them to think like scientists and correct these lopsided demographics.

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“When you’re thinking of what you want to be when you grow up, if that image doesn’t match what you look like, then that’s an immediate turnoff, “Sterling told me. “I didn’t feel like my K-12 education had prepared me for an engineering program,” she said. “I constantly felt like I was behind.”

Sterling faced these harsh gender realities as an undergraduate engineering student at Stanford, where she was often the only woman in class. “I felt like the rest of the group of guys would disregard my ideas or kind of exclude me,” she lamented.

However, college wasn’t just an exercise in humility. There were many successes for Sterling, moments where anything seemed within reach. She told me about the time she and her all-girl group of engineers were tasked with building a workable robot for a class contest. It seemed overwhelming, but by then, she had learned a major principle of engineering: how to break down larger-than-life projects into bite-sized pieces that could be banged out relatively quickly.

“Our robot won the whole competition, and that was really cool,” she told me, still emanating much of the excitement that she had as a student. “It was really rewarding if you put in a lot of effort and went the extra mile, did the tutoring, really pushed yourself, and you finally got it and it clicked.”

It was experiences like these that made her believe a character like Goldie was necessary. But one of the biggest challenges for the company early on was how to design a product that appeals to girls by adhering to some gender trends while pushing the envelope and totally bucking others. “Do I have a problem with the color pink? No,” said Sterling. “Do I have a problem with Goldie building the beauty parlor? Yes.”

To design her product, she took to toy stores and libraries to find inspiration, but it was the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland, CA, that really allowed her to explore different avenues most freely. The Depot has been around for 30 years and describes itself as “an ecological treasure trove” of materials for creative people. “It was great, because all the stuff was really cheap,” Sterling said. “It was like brainstorming with physical objects. I could really quickly prototype an idea with tongue depressors or cans or old puzzle pieces.”

RELATED: Proof That Women Can Be Inventors (and Beautiful), Too

After all the research and tinkering with recycled goods, the prototype was finally made, and it was time to get some feedback. Sterling crossed coasts for the New York Toy Fair, which bills itself as “the largest trade show in the western hemisphere.” Her experiences were inconsistent. Smaller independent toy companies loved her idea and offered to help however they could, but industry bigwigs were less than enthusiastic. “They were telling me that construction toys for girls don’t sell, and it was very, very, very niche,” she reported. “They said it was a long uphill battle and told me things like, you can’t fight nature!”

Eventually, Sterling had raised nearly twice the amount she needed for her first production run via a Kickstarter campaign gone viral. Her crowd-sourcing victory showed that a market for GoldieBlox and similar products not only existed, but was underserved as a result of the delusions of the industry at large.

Today, GoldieBlox is a success. Only a year after the company was founded, the first installment of the toy series can be found in shops around the country, including megastores like Toys "R" Us.

“I guess a lot of my role models are male,” she realized. “It’s just the nature of there being such a shortage of female engineers. We don’t have a ton to choose from. But there will be more!”

Authored by Lex Berko.
Introducing LadyBits, an ultra-cool collective of tech journalists who look at the world with smart, lady lenses. And, since we're always in the market for the best stuff out there, we'll feature its know-how on the regular.