Meet the Toymaker: GoldieBlox Founder Debra Sterling
Tags: Meet the Toymaker, Debra Sterling, Construction Sets, Building Toys
Posted: 2013-08-20 11:01:29 By: by Stephanie Oppenheim


Here's our chat with one of the bright new stars in toyland, Goldie Blox founder Debra Sterling.

SO: People always are intrigued when I tell them that I play with toys for a living, I imagine you get much the same response?

DS: I always get excited when people ask me what I do for a living because it inevitably raises eyebrows (in a good way). I've had a rather eclectic career path over the years, from brand strategy consulting at an agency to volunteering in rural India to marketing for a jewelry company. While I wouldn't change any of those experiences for the world, it feels amazing to be finally following my true calling. I'm very proud to tell people I have my own toy company.

SO: How did you become interested in toys?
DS: I became interested in toys as a means to an end: inspiring more girls and women to fill the tremendous gender gap in engineering. As a female engineer, I have always been disturbed the lack of women in the field. Only 11% of engineers in the US are women! We have a leaky pipeline, and I believe it starts at a very young age. When little girls are inundated with dolls, princesses, beauty parlors and kitchen-themed toys, it's no wonder they don't develop an early interest and skill set in the sciences.
 I didn't discover engineering until my freshman year of college. In my Introduction to Mechanical Engineering class, I was amazed at how fun engineering is. We built all kinds of crazy contraptions and each class was like playtime. While the word, "engineering," is very intimidating, I learned that the practice of engineering is collaborative, hands-on and quite enjoyable. Toys are the perfect vehicles to introduce these simple and fun engineering concepts to girls.

SO: Your focus is getting girls to build. Did you play with LEGOs, K'nex as a child?
DS: Nope. I don't think it occurred to my parents to buy construction toys for my sister and me. After all, those toys were (and still are) so heavily marketed to boys, they probably figured we wouldn't like them. However, in retrospect, I remember building quite impressive structures out of sugar packets at restaurants with my dad. I also remember some pretty elaborate forts that my sister and I used to make out of lawn chairs. I think we would have really enjoyed playing with construction toys, particularly if they were "designed for us"...which is why I'm making GoldieBlox!

SO: Having an idea and getting it to market are two different things. What's been the most surprising aspect of your journey through toyland?
DS: The most surprising thing so far has been the tremendous support I've received from fellow toymakers. The founders of Pictionary, Cranium, Leapfrog, Klutz!, Go! Go! Sports Girls, Wedgits, Zoob, Superstructs, Tegu...(the list goes on) have all gone out of their way to provide me with tons of advice and contacts. I am very new at this and would not be where I am today without all of this incredibly generous support.

SO: Were you surprised by the overwhelming support you received on Kickstarter?
DS: I was thrilled. When I started this project a year ago, I knew that this idea of "engineering toys for girls" was badly, badly needed. I envisioned a toy for the masses, something every family could afford for their little girls. I dreamed of a role model, the girl engineer character of "Goldie Blox" who girls would fall in love with and want to emulate. However, when I first started sharing the concept, I received quite a bit of push back from toy industry veterans. While they thought it was a noble cause, many argued that construction toys for girls just "don't sell". They argued that dolls and princesses are popular for a reason, and that you "can't fight nature." I launched on Kickstarter in hopes to prove them wrong. Sure enough, the response was overwhelming. I received countless emails from fans saying the video brought tears to their eyes. I heard one story from a mom who showed the video to her daughter. The next morning at breakfast, there was a problem with the waffle iron. The little girl said, "Mommy, why don't we invite the girl engineer? She can fix it!" 

SO: From my point of view - in an ideal world boys and girls would play with the same toys.  From your research, do you believe the divide is mostly cultural?
DS: I think the divide is mostly cultural, but there is a lot of research that shows some innate preferences that differ according to gender. In Louann Brizendine's book, "The Female Brain," she talks about how we still have "cave man brains." Since girls are equipped to one day become mothers, they begin nurturing from a very young age. This is why dolls and little pets are so popular among girls. Boys, on the other hand, have more testosterone and are therefore more competitive and aggressive. They are more likely to pick up a stick and use it as a toy gun in combat, for example. Girls would be more likely to take the sticks and build something with them collaboratively.
I'm not sure I agree that all boys and girls should play with the same toys. Boys and girls are different, after all, and there's nothing wrong with that. I think it becomes a problem when highly educational toys, like construction toys and science kits, are considered "boys toys." Girls shouldn't miss out on this.

Debra at playSO: As a child did you play with mostly pink toys?
DS: No, I don't remember being much of a pink fanatic as a little girl. I'm pretty sure my favorite color has always been yellow.

SO: Once you've conquered building sets for girls, are you going to include sets for boys?
When I started working on GoldieBlox, my mission was very clear: design something to fill the gender gap in the construction toy aisle for girls. Every aspect of the toy is built around countless hours of research around the female gender and play preferences. That said, I was surprised to learn in my user testing research that boys LOVE GoldieBlox just as much as girls ribbon and all.
My plan is to expand GoldieBlox into an entire series of stories with new building challenges and characters, both female and male. Eventually, I envision GoldieBlox being a gender-neutral brand, like "Harry Potter."
In order to change society and bring more girls and women into engineering, we also need boys and men to get on board. For girls (and boys) to fall in love with the Goldie character means that everyone will take this girl engineer seriously. When they meet a female engineer in real life, hopefully they won't raise their eyebrows as much. Eventually, it will feel normal and everyone will feel like they belong.

SO: What's your favorite ice cream flavor?
DS: Pistachio

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