10/20/2015 4:45 PM
Agents of change. The originators. The disruptors. The ones who look beyond the status quo. Who refuse to accept inequality. Who inspire the next generation. These are the voices we celebrate. We celebrate Debbie Sterling.
When her high school math teacher recommended she consider majoring in engineering at college, Debbie Sterling imagined an old man driving a train. “I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what engineering was so I just smiled and shrugged my shoulders,” she says.
Later, a student at Stanford, she remembered her teacher’s advice and signed up for a mechanical engineering class. She realized two things on that first day: engineering was what she wanted to study and there was a significant gender gap in the field. She felt behind her male classmates who’d known since they were kids that they wanted to pursue a career in engineering.
“I didn’t feel as capable as my male peers,” she says. “I know now that I was as capable; I was just at a disadvantage because I didn’t have engineering training prior to that point in my education. I was always playing catch up.”
After graduation, Sterling worked in branding and marketing. But her life took a turn one afternoon when she participated in an “idea brunch,” and one of her friends expressed frustration over the dearth of women in the engineering industry. As a kid, her friend was motivated to become an engineer after playing with her brother’s hand-me-down construction toys. She wondered if that’s why there were so few women in the field—they simply weren’t inspired at a young age.
“It was a light bulb moment,” recalls Sterling. “I knew that I was born to create a toy to get girls interested in engineering. I didn’t grow up playing with construction toys and I was never encouraged to get involved in engineering. I realized that there were probably millions of girls out there who wouldn’t get the kind of nudge I received from my math teacher—and I wanted to give them that nudge even earlier in life.”
Sterling spent the next year researching and saving money before taking the entrepreneurial leap and devoting herself fulltime to Goldieblox, a company that builds toys designed to encourage girls to explore and learn more about engineering. Her background in branding proved helpful in many ways as she developed her idea. “The problem to solve was not that girls are not qualified,” she says, “but that many of these toys are marketed in an intimidating and ‘boys-only’ way.”
One of the most important discoveries Sterling made in her research was the importance of developing a story for young girls. “If you give a pile of blocks to a girl and tell her to build something, she’ll say, ‘Why?’ But if you tell her she needs to build a staircase to help a dog get his treat, then she’ll say, ‘Let’s get started!’”
Sterling’s original idea was to make a prototype to bring to toy fairs and sell to “mom and pop” shops, but when she sought advice from people in the industry, she was met with resistance. Instead, she decided to crowdfund the project to build a community of advocates and prove that there was a demand for toys geared toward girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Her Kickstarter campaign raised over a quarter of a million dollars. “It was a validating moment,” she says. “We were doing something that I knew would change the world.”
In 2014, Goldieblox beat out over 20,000 small businesses in a contest by Intuit to have their commercial played during the biggest night in football. Inc. Magazine named the company one of the “World’s Most Audacious Companies of 2014” and the Toy Industry Association awarded it the “People’s Choice Toy of the Year 2014.” Most recently, Sterling was appointed by President Obama as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, and named TIME’s “Person of the Moment.”
To inspire the next generation of women engineers, Sterling believes parents also need to be more involved in encouraging girls to pursue STEM studies. “When I was a kid, my parents used to say to me that I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Those were the high paying, prestigious jobs. Now, being an engineer is in that same category. And we are helping women get there.”
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