Toys For Girls: Innovator Aims To Inspire

By Erik Olson Billings Gazette, Mont.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling is doing everything she can to inspire a love of math and science in girls. GoldieBlox toys are based around the story of a young girl named Goldie and her group of friends. Most of the toys and the overall story are designed around construction and engineering, areas that Sterling felt have long been underrepresented in children's toys.

Billings Gazette, Mont.

While big toymakers seemed content to keep engineering toys for boys, Debbie Sterling saw a gap in the market for girls tired of pink and princesses.

That's how Sterling, 33, founded in 2012 GoldieBlox, a San Francisco-based toy company that's exploded by adding a dash of social conscience in its mission to win consumers.

Sterling told a Billings audience of about 450 people Wednesday that she wants to instill a love of math and science in girls at an early age, and she's found a profitable way to do it.

"It was a life calling. I just viscerally knew that to be true," Sterling said at the Innovation Symposium at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Billings.

Sterling sat down for an hour-long question-and-answer session with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. She was the keynote guest to kick off the Innovation Symposium, a two-day event that's part of Bullock's Main Street Montana Project aimed at improving the state's business climate.

GoldieBlox toys are based around the story of a young girl named Goldie and her group of friends. Most of the toys and the overall story are designed around construction and engineering, areas that Sterling felt have long been underrepresented in children's toys.

Sterling has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Stanford University, a path she never dreamed she'd take as a girl. She got involved in the field on the advice of a female mentor.

"I never had any interest in engineering when I was growing up. I didn't even know what it was. Engineering? Why does this woman think I want to be, a train driver?" Sterling said.

In college, Sterling said she found herself in a man's world, and it could be intimidating.

"I was often the only girl in group projects. It's embarrassing to admit, but I thought I wasn't smart enough," Sterling said.

While working at a jewelry store in the Bay Area, Sterling saved $30,000 in about nine months to start her business. She planned to keep with it for at least a year, and, if it didn't work out, find another job using her Stanford degree.

She found early success in a seed investment from the founder of the board game Pictionary. Then, using the online crowd-funding site Kickstarter, Sterling raised $100,000 as the idea caught fire, but she still faced big challenges in growing the business.

"It sounds great to go viral on Kickstarter. The reality was that I was completely in over my head," Sterling said.

These included expanding inventory from one prototype to 40,000 of the first toys, then meeting exact specifications for pieces designed to fit together, similar to Legos, she said.

The business had missteps but grew into a team of 25 employees in Oakland, Calif., Sterling said.

In 2014, Sterling struck it big when GoldieBlox won a contest by tech giant Intuit for a 30-second commercial during Super Bowl XLVIII.

The $4 million ad, paid for by Intuit, was seen by 111.5 million people and gained praise for distinguishing itself among beer, auto and snack food commercials that traditionally dominate the space, according to Forbes magazine.

GoldieBlox now has 17 products in more than 6,000 retailers worldwide, according to the magazine.

Sterling's advice to Montana entrepreneurs? Don't be afraid to collaborate.

During her Kickstarter campaign, Sterling said she was petrified that someone would steal her idea (her own mother even signed a non-disclosure agreement, she said with a laugh.)

Only after she opened up did Sterling notice she'd become isolated. She said bouncing ideas off employees and other helped the business grow.

Bullock said Sterling can inspire Montana entrepreneurs.

"We need more peer-to-peer situations, where employers can hear from other employers what their challenges and successes are," Bullock said.

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