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April 11, 2014

Debbie Sterling: GoldieBlox Founder


Photo Credit: David Cortes

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Debbie Sterling found her calling in 2011, over brunch, when a former Stanford classmate unleashed a jeremiad about gender imbalances in engineering classes. The woman had played with her brother’s Lincoln Logs and Legos— but why weren’t there any great construction toys for girls, she asked. "The moment she said that, it lit a fire in me," Sterling, 31, recalls. "I became obsessed with the idea."

Related: Toy Company for Girls to Make History During Super Bowl

Nearly a year later, she’d quit her marketing job at a jewelry company and invested $30,000 of her savings to design construction toys for girls that were engaging and educational. She dubbed her startup GoldieBlox—a kicky play on "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." "The idea for GoldieBlox wasn’t that original. There were plenty of pink Legos on the toy shelf," Sterling explains. "But what we were doing required the determination to execute and the risk to go out there and do something different."

Related: GoldieBlox Does it Again

Girls, she learned, preferred narrative-type games, so she built a prototype out of Peg-Board, spools, and ribbon and structured GoldieBlox as a story, replete with books that talked of inventing and failing and "building things to help friends," she says. But when she shared the concept with toy-industry veterans, they scoffed "The response I got was that girls aren’t inclined toward building," Sterling says. "And construction toys for girls are doomed to fail."

Related: The Best Super Bowl Ads for Women

Famous last words: In 2012, she raised an astonishing $285,000 within a month via Kickstarter, enabling GoldieBlox to manufacture 40,000 units—a huge number for a first run. In late November, just in time for the holiday shopping blitz, GoldieBlox posted a dazzling two-minute video on YouTube (produced by Sterling’s filmmaker husband) depicting a group of spunky girls who built an epic Rube Goldberg machine out of their pink toys. The soundtrack was a retooled girl-power version of the famously misogynistic Beastie Boys video had garnered 7 million views and had sparked a national conversation about the dearth of girls in engineering.

The Beastie Boys took issue with her use of the song, and while they are still hashing things out, she ultimately replaced the song from the video. Sterling insists using the song wasn’t a marketing stunt and describes the incident as "one of the worst weeks of my life."But the publicity was no doubt a boon for the company, with everyone from Chelsea Clinton to Ellen DeGeneres tweeting about GoldieBlox. She won’t share how many games she sold over the holidays, except to say, "We were thrilled with the response—it was a dream come true."

Check out GoldieBlox's latest commercial below.

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