Inspiring the Next Generation of Women Engineers One Toy at a Time

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.”

TIME: Content from Hyundai


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Acerca de Karina Lopez

KARINA LOPEZ Desde 1989, soy Socia Fundadora y Directora de Quali Consulting - firma de consultoría especializada en el diseño de estrategias de planeación y mercadotecnia -. En 1989 inicié el que sería un proyecto de vida, Quali, donde pude cosechar el primer éxito el siguiente año, al obtener la representación para México y Sudamérica de Singapur National Printers, accionando desde ese momento el motor de una maquinaria que no ha dejado de funcionar. Una década después Quali se convirtió en la firma #1 del noreste de México y la #14 en el país de acuerdo al ranking de AdCebra, revista de publicidad de circulación nacional. Como consecuencia de este reconocimiento, llegaron otras oportunidades, como la sinergia lograda con la revista Fortune para representarlos comercialmente en la región. En 1997 inicia una etapa diferente para Quali al empezar a trabajar con empresas americanas. La primera fue HEB, que requería de una estrategia de introducción comunicación y posicionamiento de su marca en México y que llegó directo de Howard E. Butt III. Este proyecto duró dos años, sin embargo de ahí siguieron otros con empresas como Chemical Waste Management, The Coastal Corporation, Sourthern Pacific Transportation, entre otras y por casi diez años, operamos con una filial en Houston, Texas. Otra etapa importante en el haber de Quali es la que hemos desarrollado en proyectos de Relaciones Públicas y de Relaciones con la Comunidad, ya que se ha logrado colaborar en algunos de gran trascendencia para Monterrey, tales como el Proyecto Santa Lucía, que incluyó la apertura del Museo de Historia, la ampliación de la Avenida Venustiano Carranza, la apertura del Centro Comercial Valle Oriente, la construcción del WalMart de Ave. Gómez Morín, por mencionar algunos. Gracias a mi experiencia en el sector educativo, desarrollamos un gran conocimiento del sector privado y con ello capacidades y metodologías para atender este mercado, gracias a lo cual han sido clientes nuestros el Tecnológico de Monterrey, TecMilenio, UIC, ETAC, CECVAC, Colegio San Felipe, Universo NET, por mencionar algunos. Desde 2013, formo parte del Consejo de Administración de Universo NET. En más de 25 años de trayectoria con Quali, puedo decir que tenemos experiencia en muchos sectores industriales y de servicio; sin embargo la constante que nos ha permitido permanecer en el mercado es nuestro énfasis en desarrollar una relación duradera con nuestros clientes, la tenacidad e iniciativa por buscar soluciones a la medida y el integrar equipos de trabajo con nuestros clientes. Estudié la carrera de Comunicación “por novedad” y después me especialicé en Mercadotecnia, procuro salirme del cuadro y tener una vida intensa, ocupada y plena, que incluya tiempo para mi familia y el ejercicio.
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