How the Founder of This Multimedia Company Hired Her Own Mentor
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
In the Women Entrepreneur series Mentor Moments, female founders sit down to chat with their own mentors (and us!) about how and why the relationship developed, and the lasting impact it’s had on their careers.
Debbie Sterling launched GoldieBlox in 2012 with the mission of getting young girls interested in STEM and engineering. Years ago, a business meeting introduced Sterling to Shawn Dennis, who boasted an impressive resume including experience at Dreamworks and American Girl. The two hit it off, and an invaluable mentorship developed -- in fact, the pair are so close, Dennis is now an official employee of her mentee, serving as the president at GoldieBlox. The two women sound off on their relationship, taking people up on their offers and surrounding yourself with people you believe in.
Women Entrepreneur: How did you two meet?
Debbie Sterling: We met four years ago at Dreamworks, where Shawn was working at the time as the global head of brand franchise. And I was there, because we were discussing a potential partnership with GoldieBlox for an animated show. After the meeting, Shawn pulled me aside and said, “I love what you’re doing. I used to do publishing and product at American Girl, I’m really passionate about your mission and might be able to help no matter what happens with Dreamworks.” I was blown away. I knew I had found my dream mentor.
Shawn Dennis: I’m blushing! I don’t think people always recognize the future in younger executives. This wasn’t about male or female, this was about recognizing a visionary. I was just blown away by what Debbie was doing. And Debbie and I are very complementary. I’m an operator, she’s a creator. We both get a lot of out of this. There is no such thing as a one-way street when it comes to mentorship.
WE: So how did the relationship progress following that meeting?
DS: Basically, every time I was in Los Angeles, I’d email Shawn to see if she was free to get together.
SD: I’ve gotta give her huge credit. I have made other mentorship offers, and the person maybe didn’t take me up on it, they didn’t hungrily grab the carrot and say, “Oh yeah, I’m in.” But Debbie was fantastic -- “Are you available in two hours?”
DS: I’m in a position now where I can mentor young entrepreneurs who are maybe where I was three, four, five years ago. And I don’t offer to mentor too frequently, because I’m just too busy. So that’s helped me learn that when someone offers it, they mean it. Earlier in my career, I think I probably assumed people were just offering help or mentorship to be nice. But now I know that’s not the case.
SD: Maybe our second or third dinner, when our relationship had been somewhat established, Debbie was so impressive and brought to the table very practical issues she wanted help with, things she knew I had expertise on. She asked if she should do catalogs, for example, because she knew I had done 70 million catalogs a year at American Girl.
DS: It’s true, I knew Shawn’s background and cherry-picked issues where she could help. Her time was precious.
WE: A few years back Shawn joined the board at GoldieBlox, and earlier this year she formally stepped into the role of president. Was that always a possibility in the backs of your minds?
DS: I think at the very first dinner I had with Shawn, I probably told her I hoped she’d work here someday.
SD: She’s a dog on a bone.
DS: I know what I want. But it was maybe a year ago that I started to really consider hiring a president, and it’s such an important role, so I set up a formal process and timeline and hired a recruiting firm. We were at the tail end of that process when Shawn texted me and said, “You haven’t hired that president yet? Don’t do it!”
SD: I finally saw the light.
WE: Has the relationship shifted at all now that you work together full time?
SD: For me, not really -- we knew from the beginning that we complemented each other. The hardest thing is realizing we don’t have to be in the same place all the time. Women tend to be collaborative, and we enjoy working together, but we don’t need to be in every meeting together. So dividing and conquering has been the hardest part.
DS: Having someone that I can say, "Hey, we have this huge initiative that needs to get done…will you go do it?’ I’ve never had that person before. And Shawn’s like, "I’m on it, don’t worry about it." It was such a smooth transition, because not only have we known each other, but our whole team knows Shawn, because she’s been on our board. She hit the ground running.