Debbie Sterling is the founder of an award-winning multimedia compnay that features the first girl engineer as a superhero. She was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Moment. She also received the 2015 Presidential Ambassador Award for Global Entrepreneurship. She will be featured in the Women’s History Museum. I agree with the emcee, Ana, that she seems a little young for all this! (since she was featured in the Top 40 Under 40). I have heard Debbie deliver the opening keynote at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women and was delighted at this opportunity to hear her inspire us again!
Disrupting the Pink Aisle
Debbie began by holding up a GHC 17 card. She turned it around and read, “I am a pink aisle disruptor!” The audience cheered. Debbie then showed us a picture of herself as a little girl. She was dressed in a Disney Princess outfit and a thought cloud showed her fantasizing about Snow White. She was into dolls, dresses and princesses. But she was also into other things. The next photo showed her playing trains with her young male cousin (and forcibly taking his train track away from him, resulting in a physical squabble in which he was injured, requiring the family to rush to the emergency room! But, as Debbie said, that is not the point of the story). A thought cloud showed her cousing thinking about Thomas the Tank Engine in the same way that she fantasized about Snow White. Her question was, “Why were those his trains?”
Fast forward to Debbie’s high school years. Her yearbook photos show that she was on the Science Olympiad and the Math Team. She was also an “angel”, as the cherubic glow on her curly hair demonstrates. The course of her life changed when she got accepted into Stanford University. As someone who went to public school in a small town, this was a big deal!
When Debbie walked into her Mechanical Engineering 101 class, she saw that there were 4 women. She almost turned around and walked out. She stayed and found that she enjoyed problem-solving so much that she eventually declared Engineering as her major. There were, however, challenges. She had not taken engineering during her K-12 education. This caused her to be behind the other (mostly male) students who had enjoyed a more privileged education. As the only girl in all-guy groups, she often found herself steamrolled and talked over. And although she pulled several all-nighters, she was only able to score C’s. She felt that she was not good enough and not smart enough and there were times when she just wanted to quit.
“The day I graduated was the proudest day of my life,” Debbie said, showing us her graduation photo beside her proudly-beaming mother. “It was hard but I stuck it out. I did it! And as a result, I felt invincible!” I recalled her using this same word at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women, with equal enthusiasm. This experience and epithet are clearly dear to her heart.
Steve Jobs delivered his infamous Commencement Speech the day Debbie graduated from Stanford. The two words she remembers most are Never Settle.
Debbie and her friends joined the workforce and started a tradition called the Idea Brunch. She showed us a photo of them hanging out, a friendly, affable group of people surrounded by typical breakfast foods, such as bagels and donuts. In addition to consuming food, they would also discuss the big ideas on their minds. It was one such brunch that planted the seed out of which GoldieBlox would bloom. Debbie’s friend, Christie, bemoaned the lack of women in her engineering classes, an experience that Debbie could certainly relate to. Christie grew up with 3 older brothers and spent her formative years playing with their hand-me-down construction toys. The question that was always in her mind was, “Why were those my brothers’ toys?” The following thoughts exploded in Debbie’s brain:
- “Oh my God, this is what Steve Jobs was talking about!”
- “This is what I was born to do!”
This was accompanied by a slide that showed the woman stick figure with an idea light bulb over her head, a construction wrench in one hand and a wand with a star in her other hand. It was an illuminative and illustrative depiction of Debbie’s state of mind.
After the brunch, Debbie raced up to Christie and delightedly explained that Christie’s comments had cemented Debbie’s life purpose. She was going to create engineering toys for girls! Would Christie want to come in on this idea? Christie’s response was lukewarm. “Yeah, maybe.” In the excited throes of creation, Debbie did not pick up on this. She woke up at 7 AM the next morning, incredibly eager to go to Toys R Us and disrupt the pink aisle. She figured that since this was 2011, times would have changed since she was a kid and perhaps the toy selection for girls had improved.
Debbie showed us a picture of the “Pink Aisle”. Things had not changed that much. The shelves were still crammed with bright pink jars of playdough, dolls in gauzy pink dresses and other pink toys. Debbie referred to the “Blue Aisle” as the aisle with interesting toys: math, science and construction-related. There were some toys that the aisles had in common but the creators felt they had to color the containers pink in order to make them appeal to girls.
Debbie said, “I knew that this is what I was meant to do but what if I fail?”
Debbie held a full-time marketing job and decided to make this her side hustle. On evenings and weekends, she read every pice of research on gender, play and toys that she could find. Her conclusion: the idea that “girls don’t want to build things” is not biological, but cultural. She also observed young children at play. Boys would enjoy building a huge block tower and then slamming it hard against the wall and watching it fall apart. For them, this was a lot of fun! Girls, on the other hand, used Legos to create scenes and tell stories. This was Debbie’s big “Aha!” moment.
After 9 months of side-hustling, Debbie decided that “If I didn’t jump in and do it full-time, it wouldn’t happen.” With a great deal of support from her family, friends and husband, she decided to quit her job and devote her full attention to making GoldieBlox a reality. She had enough in her bank account to support her for a year. Since she was living off her life savings, she didn’t have a lot of money to spend on creating expensive prototypes. This turned out to be a good thing. Her financial limitations enabled her to rapidly prototype GoldieBlox using thread spools and other around-the-house items.
Debbie packed up her prototype and went to the New York Toy Fair. She thought it would be a lively and fun atmosphere. It turned out to be “a lot of old, white guys in suits.” They looked at her prototype in perplexity and then said, “You can’t fight nature. Girls want to be princesses, not engineers.”
I heard the audience members behind me gasp in disbelief and say, “What? What?” as if they couldn’t believe their ears. This made me realize that we have come a long way. When I first heard Debbie tell the above story at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women, there were no such reactions of disbelief. The response was more of amusement, as in “Oh yeah, we’ve heard that before. Ha ha.” It may have been that the demographic may have been older and more used to hearing these ideas during their formative years. The current generation finds such limitations unbelievable. This is refreshing!
Although the New York Toy Fair did not work out the way Debbie hoped, she did receive interest from a group of young millenials, who formed a team behind GoldieBlox. Debbie showed us a collage of familiar faces:
- Hillary Clinton
- Sheryl Sandberg
- Mayim Bialik
- Pharrell Williams
- and many more
She explained that although she did not know any of these people, she wanted to get them behind GoldieBlox and she used social media to engage interest. This worked and GoldieBlox made the final interview rounds of Y-Cominator (a toy design contest). Even Christie came back on board, saying “Hey, I think I’m ready to be a part of GoldieBlox after all!”
Then came the rejection letter. Y-Cominator felt GoldieBlox was trying to do too much. Debbie showed us a picture of the rejection letter. “You have to choose one direction – you can’t have construction and story-telling,” the letter airily explained. Debbie was devastated. She felt as if she had let her entire team down. They dissipated and Christie returned to her job. Debbie was alone. The timing could not have been worse. Debbie was scheduled to meet with her investors the following week. She had nothing in hand but her prototypes and a rejection letter from Y-Cominator. No team and no co-founder.
Debbie courageously got herself on a plane and headed to her investors’ meeting. She found, much to her astonishment, that:
- they had never heard of and could not care less about Y-Cominator and its opinion of GoldieBlox
- they were utterly unconcerned about the absence of a co-founder and a team
- they wanted to meet Debbie! The brain behind GoldieBlox! What convinced them was the hundreds of videos of little girls playing with GoldieBlox. This alone convinced them that investing in Debbie was a good idea. They welcomed her with open arms and followed through with venture capital
Debbie received the money she needed and GoldieBlox transformed from a thought in her mind to a reality on toy store shelves. She received a call from the owner of Toys R Us. He complained that her depiction of his pink aisle was making the company look bad. Within weeks, GoldieBlox was on the shelves of Toys R Us.
There were still some challenges to overcome. Toys R Us informed Debbie that GoldieBlox was not selling as fast as they hoped. The toy was appealing to customers who were already in the store but more advertisting was required to get potential buyers to come to the store in the first place. Debbie had no budget for advertising. She appealed to the GoldieBlox following through crowdsourcing, engaging their votes to win GoldieBlox a commercial slot during the Super Bowl. Out of 5000 entries, GoldieBlox won and was featured during the Super Bowl. The ad played silently in the background while Debbie spoke. She played it for us in its entirety at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women. Young girls run through the streets with wagons and play construction equipment, to the astonishment of both young boys and passers-by. The girls build rockets that blast off and work as a team to accomplish this goal. It is a very uplifting advertisement.
Debbie said she wished she could tell the potential investors at the New York Toy Fair, “Boy, were you wrong!” She said to us:
They’re mired in the past and it’s our job to build the future.
This received tremendous applause from the GHC 17 audience.
Today, GoldieBlox has grown to include:
- RandomHouse Chapter Books
- Girl Scout badges (troops can earn their STEM badges by completing GoldieBlox projects)
- This is the Makers generation
- GoldieBlox is for all the young girls out there who don’t know that they are engineers yet
- GHC 17 attendees can obtain a parting gift at http://goldieblox.com/gracehopper
Debbie’s closing request: Ask yourself – how can I be the spark in a young girl’s life? All it takes is one small act of kindness, such as the one Debbie’s math teacher gave her when she suggested that Debbie pursue a career in engineering. This ripple effect is a beautiful idea. As an American Women in Math mentor, I recently began mentoring a 7th-grade girl who is very enthusiastic about STEM. It was good to feel that I have met Debbie’s closing request.
Hearing Debbie speak again was a terrific start to the second day of GHC!