Debbie Sterling didn't know what engineering was when her high-school math teacher suggested it as her college major. She would eventually become not only an engineer but the inventor of a popular girl-friendly engineering toy poised to disrupt the "pink aisle" of toy stores.
The success of her toy, GoldieBlox, is one that even industry analysts could not have predicted. Born of a conversation among women engineers about how to grow their numbers, the toy went from Kickstarter crowdfunding project to the shelves of Toys 'R' Us in less than nine months. The toy, which combines a storybook about a girl engineer and her friends with a construction set, had $1.5 million pre-sales by the end of the Kickstarter campaign, and sold about 50,000 as of early July 2013.
Getting on Toys 'R' Us shelves is a big deal for a startup, says Sean Windle, a toy-industry analyst with market-research firm IBIS Worldwide. "It is highly competitive to get shelf space at a toy store," he says. He says GoldieBlox is indicative of a larger industry trend of crafting traditionally boy or girl toys to appeal to the opposite sex, pointing to the "Lego Friends" line introduced last year and marketed to girls. Still, Windle cautions, as quickly as a deal is made, it could disappear if the toy doesn't sell. "Once sales start lagging in a particular category, [Toys 'R' Us is] very quick to do away with it," he says.
Sterling, 30, didn't start out to build game-changing toys for girls. When her high-school teacher suggested engineering as a major, she says "I pictured an old man driving a train. I had no clue what it was and it sounded really unappealing." But the idea stuck. In her first year at Stanford University, she took an engineering class and realized how creative the field could be.
She also noticed how few women were in her classes. Women made up only about 25% of the students in department when she started, which dwindled to 15% by the time she graduated in 2005, she says. "I almost left a million times. I would always be the only woman in group projects, and the men would just dismiss me. It was hard to see yourself as a woman fitting in," she says. What's more, she noticed the men in her classes came with a knowledge base she lacked
In 2011, a conversation at a monthly "ideas brunch" with Silicon Valley friends turned to the dearth of women in math-and-science careers and how to get girls interested in in science, technology, engineering and math (known as STEM) subjects. It got her thinking: All of those men in her classes grew up playing with Legos. "I thought: Why are Legos boys' toys? [The idea to create a girl-friendly engineering toy] all came rushing in at that moment," she says. "And who better to do it? I'm an engineer and I was once a little girl."
Sterling spent the next year creating the toy, studying gender differences and cognitive development in children, writing a business plan and doing in-home testing with a prototype with more than 100 boys and girls in three schools and more than 40 homes.
By the spring of 2012 she finally had a toy she was happy with. GoldieBlox combines a story to appeal to girl's strong verbal skills with a peg board and movable parts to encourage the development of spatial skills. During her testing she noticed that girls would often point to a book as their favorite toy, while boys favored building. "Narrative-based building was the big 'aha,' " she says. "[Girls] aren't just building a thing for no reason. They are building a machine to help solve a problem."