“I think that Svaha clothing is fantastic – so cute and clever. I really like how they are helping to break the gender stereotypes that you typically see with kids’ clothing. Svaha recognizes that kids are all different and that girls can love princesses but also want to build their own castles!” -Debbie Sterling
For today's blog post, Debbie Sterling, the founder of Goldieblox was nice enough to answer some questions from us! For those who are unfamiliar with her company, Goldieblox is a media and entertainment company that educates and empowers young girls through fun STEAM themed toys and engaging content. Learn more about Debbie Sterling in the interview below!
Please tell us a little about your background. What was your favorite toy as a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up?
My parents wanted me to be an actress but I thought I would either be an artist or a lawyer. Obviously I did none of these and went to college to study engineering almost accidentally…. because a teacher suggested that I would be good at it!
Most of the engineers I met at school grew up playing with construction toys. Unfortunately for me, my sister and I thought those were "boys toys" and never considered them when we were young. The toy I would spend hours playing with as a little girl was Etch-A-Sketch. I always loved art and it really inspired my creativity -- I had so much fun exploring what I could create under the mechanical constraints of 2 simple knobs. Years later, I discovered the intersection of art and engineering and realized it was my passion. The Etch-A-Sketch also taught me how to "let go of your darlings" -- you had to shake your artwork away if you wanted to create something new. This is a lesson I've used repeatedly in business.
What was your inspiration behind GoldieBlox? How did you begin?
On my graduation day from Stanford in 2005, the commencement speaker was Steve Jobs and his speech really changed my life. He encouraged all of us to never settle until we found our passion. From that day forward, I made it my mission to find my passion in life and make a career out of it. This led me on a very circuitous path, starting as an intern at a branding agency in Seattle and then to a volunteer at a grassroots nonprofit in rural India, to a marketing director at a jewelry company in San Francisco. I learned so much from all of these experiences, but I also knew that none of them was “the thing” I was born to do.
Then, one day, I finally found it. I was hanging out with a group of friends and we were talking about “big ideas” that could change the world. A friend of mine started to complain that we were some of the only women in our engineering classes and argued that her interest in engineering came at a young age by playing with her brothers’ construction toys. Her big idea was “engineering toys for girls” and at that moment I knew — clear as day — that this was what I was born to do! I quit my job to pursue this idea full time, becoming an entrepreneur working out of my living room and eventually building it into a multimedia company with content and toys that have inspired millions of girls around the world.
What was your biggest obstacle when you wanted to start the company? Did you experience any failures?
When I first started out, I was told by several people that my mission was great, but construction toys would never sell or go mainstream. I kept hearing that I couldn’t “fight nature” and that boys like building, girls like dolls and princess and pink. That was difficult to hear, but I knew that they were wrong.
What has been the most inspirational experience for you with GoldieBlox?
The most interesting story along this journey has got to be winning a free Super Bowl commercial. In the early days of founding the company, I found out about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where Intuit was going to give one small business a free Super Bowl commercial. As soon as I read about it, I had this feeling in my gut that it was GoldieBlox’s destiny to be the winner. I rallied my whole team around this Super Bowl opportunity and we put everything we had into it. We mobilized our Kickstarter backers and all of our early customers to vote for us, reminding them every day across all of our social media accounts. Out of 30,000 applicants, GoldieBlox went on to become the grand prize winner, and the CEO of Intuit surprised us at our teeny Oakland office, with a giant check, just like out of Publisher’s Clearing House. Getting to participate creatively in making our ad was a total blast. But getting to see it on live TV, at a rooftop party in New York City, where we flew in all of our employees to experience it, was literally a dream come true.
What is your favorite story about the difference GoldieBlox made for a girl?
My proudest moments are the little things. The little reminders that GoldieBlox has the potential to make a massive impact on the lives of girls. Like a handwritten letter that I received in the mail from a seven-year-old – about how GoldieBlox has introduced her to building, how much she loves it, and how she wants to be an engineer one day. It is the moments like that that get me up every morning.
What piece of advice would you give moms in encouraging and inspiring their daughters to love STEM?
It starts with parents and teachers encouraging kids and exposing them to STEM at a young age. If we teach girls early on that they’re capable and build their confidence, they won’t feel as intimidated by entering these male-dominated fields.
It’s also important for kids to learn about interesting women in STEM to have role models that will inspire them. We often hear about male scientists and engineers, but we rarely learn and celebrate stories about women. That’s why we try to tell those stories -- the more they see themselves reflected in the media -- the more likely they are to be open to or pursuing a similar career.
Tell us about the importance of Curiosity Camp?
Our most recent project, Curiosity Camp, is a free virtual camp for kids that we created in partnership with Lyda Hill Philanthropies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Curiosity Camp is full of “campisodes” featuring trailblazing women in STEM — from paleontologists to virologists to computer programmers — who talk about what they do in a fun and engaging way for kids. It also offers fun downloadable STEAM activities and badges kids can earn. It’s all part of GoldieBlox’s immediate response to Covid and stepping up to quickly add value for parents struggling to find tools for their home-bound kids that they know are safe and fun.
What inspired your decision to expand into animated content with GoldieBlox?
GoldieBlox is shining a light on a very real issue in our society: that from a young age, girls are not encouraged to pursue STEM interests or careers. So we decided to create content, develop products, collaborate with partners and conduct research specifically targeted for young girls that showcase STEM as fun (and part of everyday life). We have learned that if you make STEM learning fun and accessible, kids don’t even realize they are learning. And teachers and parents love that too! Lots of other companies and nonprofit organizations are working to close the gender gap in STEM, but everyone has a different approach, and often I’ve noticed even the most well intentioned people can make STEM come across as very intimidating. I think the big difference with GoldieBlox is that we really have cracked the code on how to make STEM fun, appealing, relatable and engaging for a diverse group of girls, unlike anyone else, and we can do it at great scale, reaching millions with our content and products.
What is the most important message you would pass along to women and girls interested in the STEM fields?
Don’t let anyone tell you STEM isn’t for you! I love being an engineer and if it’s something you’re thinking about pursuing, don’t let anyone hold you back.
Who inspires you today?
My grandmother Sterling was an art director for Disney and Charles Schulz in the 1950s when very few women had senior roles in animation. She has always been a role model for me. She died before I was born, but my memories of her exist in her incredible artwork I grew up admiring.
From the very beginning, our vision was to build a franchise around GoldieBlox that spans toys, books, entertainment, experiences, education and lifestyle. Just like the Disney Princess franchise has enabled young girls around the world to experience a "princess phase", we want to give girls the chance to play out their "maker phase". And hopefully, for some it won't just be a "phase", but the beginning of a lifelong passion. Although we started with construction toys "disrupting the pink aisle", we have quickly expanded to YouTube shows, chapter books, apps that teach kids how to code, a STEM badge program with the Girl Scouts and so much more. The reason we've expanded so quickly is because we've always had storytelling at our core. GoldieBlox didn't just start out as a construction set, we developed the world's first girl engineer character, Goldie. Sharing her stories through our books, live action YouTube series, and more helps fill an enormous gap in the landscape of children's toys and media: the lack of strong female characters. We need to be creating role models for young girls that show them they can grow up to be more than the princess that needs rescuing. Goldie and her diverse group of friends are timely role models for the next generation of kids who self-identify as "makers".