Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “Be Comfortable in Your Own Skin” With Debbie Sterling of GoldieBlox
Lots of other companies and nonprofit organizations are working to close the gender gap in STEM too, but everyone has a different approach, and often I’ve noticed even the most well intentioned people can make STEM come across very intimidating. I think the big difference with GoldieBlox is that we really have cracked the code on how to make STEM fun, appealing, relatable and engaging for girls and girls of color unlike anyone else, and we can do it at great scale, reaching millions with our content and products.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Sterling, Founder and CEO of GoldieBlox.
Debbie Sterling is the Founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, the award-winning media and entertainment company known for disrupting the pink aisle in toy stores globally and challenging gender stereotypes with products and media that celebrate girls in STEM.
Debbie is an engineer, entrepreneur, spokesperson and one of the leaders in the movement toward getting girls interested in STEM. This summer, GoldieBlox launched “Curiosity Camp,” a boredom-busting virtual camp for girls ages 6–12. The camp will be releasing new content throughout the school year designed to keep young minds engaged and entertained with activities, downloadables, and video content that inspires and entertains
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
On my graduation day from Stanford in 2005, the commencement speaker was Steve Jobs and his speech really changed my life. He encouraged all of us to never settle until we found our passion. From that day forward, I made it my mission to find my passion in life and make a career out of it. This led me on a very circuitous path, starting as an intern at a branding agency in Seattle and then to a volunteer at a grassroots nonprofit in rural India to a marketing director at a jewelry company in San Francisco. I learned so much from all of these experiences, but I also knew that none of them was “the thing” I was born to do. Then, one day, I finally found it. I was hanging out with a group of friends at a party and we were brainstorming “big ideas” that could change the world. A friend of mine started to complain that we were some of the only women in our engineering classes and argued that her interest in engineering came at a young age by playing with her brothers’ construction toys. Her big idea was “engineering toys for girls” and at that moment I knew — clear as day — that this was what I was born to do! I quit my job to pursue this idea full time, becoming an entrepreneur working out of my living room and eventually building it into a multimedia company with content that has reached over 100mm views and toys that have inspired millions of girls around the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting story along this journey has got to be winning a free Super Bowl commercial. In the early days of founding the company, I found out about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where Intuit was going to give one small business a free Super Bowl commercial. As soon as I read about it, I had this feeling in my gut that it was GoldieBlox’s destiny to be the winner. I rallied my whole team around this Super Bowl opportunity and we put everything we had into it. We mobilized our Kickstarter backers and all of our early customers to vote for us, reminding them every day across all of our social media accounts. Out of 30,000 applicants, GoldieBlox went on to become the grand prize winner, and the CEO of Intuit surprised us at our teeny Oakland office, with a giant check like out of Publisher’s Clearing House. Getting to participate creatively in making our ad was a total blast. But getting to see it on live TV, at a rooftop party in New York City, where we flew in all of our employees to experience it, was literally a dream come true.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am not ashamed to say that I made a lot of mistakes as a first-time founder and CEO, those mistakes helped me build the successful company we have today. The most classic mistake I made, which I now understand is very common, is wanting and needing to be involved in every moment and every decision. I have learned to be more strategic with my brainpower, to hire well and to trust those hires to make great decisions to help move the company and the mission forward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out because we are shining a light on a very real issue in our society. That young girls are not encouraged to pursue STEM interests or careers from a young age. So we decided to create content, develop products, collaborate with partners and conduct research specifically targeted for young girls that showcase STEM as fun (and part of everyday life). We have learned that if you make STEM learning fun and accessible, kids don’t even realize they are learning. And teachers and parents love that too! Lots of other companies and nonprofit organizations are working to close the gender gap in STEM too, but everyone has a different approach, and often I’ve noticed even the most well intentioned people can make STEM come across very intimidating. I think the big difference with GoldieBlox is that we really have cracked the code on how to make STEM fun, appealing, relatable and engaging for girls and girls of color unlike anyone else, and we can do it at great scale, reaching millions with our content and products.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a number of projects in the works that will be announced in the next few months that are really exciting and reflect our rapid growth. Our most recent project, Curiosity Camp, is a free virtual camp for kids 6–12 that we created in partnership with Lyda Hill Philanthropies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Curiosity Camp is full of “campisodes” featuring trailblazing women in STEM — from paleontologists to virologists to computer programmers — who talk about what they do in a fun and engaging way for kids. It also offers fun downloadable STEAM activities and badges kids can earn. It’s all part of GoldieBlox’s immediate response to Covid and stepping up to quickly add value for parents struggling to find tools for their home-bound kids that they know are safe and fun.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
There is a very leaky pipeline for women in STEM, starting from as young as age 3 or 4, continuing through elementary school, middle & high school, college and into professional careers. The issues are complex and multifaceted every step of the way. GoldieBlox’s focus is at the beginning of the pipeline — youth 18 and under, with a specific focus on girls 6–12. While there is a lot of research that talks about middle school being a pivotal point for girls in STEM, I argue strongly that the problems begin well before middle school in terms of girls losing interest and confidence much earlier and boys being more strongly encouraged from a young age. I believe that creating more interest and excitement from a young age is absolutely critical to getting more girls into the pipeline to begin with. More girls in the pipeline means more girls will be able to support one another as they go through their STEM journeys, so that there won’t be as many girls feeling as isolated as I did as one of the only women in my engineering major in college. In order to affect girls 18 and under, outside of what they are learning in school (and let’s face it, most kids in the US will not get an adequate STEM education purely in the classroom without a major overhaul to our system), they need inspiration in the form of media and toys that make STEM interesting and appealing to them so that they consider it in the first place. That’s GoldieBlox’s focus and how we fit into the larger puzzle.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Unfortunately many STEM fields are still male-dominated. It’s changing, but not fast enough for me! Tech culture is emblematic of this male bubble. But as Millennials and Gen Z grow up, there will be a sea change in perception and opportunity and we are proud to be part of that. GoldieBlox is battling that by battling the stereotypes head on. Before GoldieBlox, almost all of the children’s media characters who were engineers or builders were male (Thomas the Train, Handy Manny, Sid the Science Kid). GoldieBlox is putting female engineer characters in the lead in the media it creates to make it normal for kids to see women doing STEM. Before GoldieBlox, almost all of the children’s STEM-related toys were in the blue aisle with boys on the front of the box. Now, the toy industry has been pressured, in large part due to GoldieBlox’s early success, to remove gender labeling from toy aisles and provide better toy options designed to be inclusive of girls and girls’ interests. As we keep this up, slowly but surely these deep rooted gender stereotypes will begin to disappear for generations to come.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
That these fields are too hard or too demanding or too complicated. That men have a biological advantage over women in STEM. That’s such an archaic way of thinking that has to change and there is ample research that debunks this myth.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I have one big lesson that I would like to share: Be Comfortable in Your Own Skin. When I founded this company, there weren’t many female CEOs to emulate that I was aware of. My previous jobs had been working for male CEOs and most of the CEOs featured in the media were also male. I felt like I had to act like a man to succeed, to get the funding, to run the company. And that wasn’t my personality, so I struggled with self doubt and constantly worried about letting people down. I suffered from imposter syndrome. But once I decided to be myself and chart my own CEO path, I found that I was more successful and more respected.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Believe in your vision and surround yourself with people who are experts in their areas and trust them to help you fulfill that vision.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Don’t apologize for who you are or what you are trying to achieve. Communicate your vision clearly and consistently. Trust your gut.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Maxine Clark. When I first started the company, she reached out to me to introduce herself as the founder of Build A Bear. I picked her brain for hours and she has been a wonderful mentor to me for years. She is one of the smartest women I have ever met and she has been a major force in the success of GoldieBlox.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am so fortunate to have met some of the most prominent leaders in the world and to have been invited to be a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship under the Obama administration. I use every opportunity I have to spread the word about STEM as accessible, inspiring and important.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Breaking down gender stereotypes. These deeply rooted gender biases are evident in kids as young as 4. And that puts girls at a distinct disadvantage for many careers, especially STEM.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Kill Your Darlings.” I learned this very important lesson from my art professor in college. I had spent days working on a very small portion of a larger artwork and wanted it to be just right. The professor had me paint over my hard work in order to make me focus on the big picture. Lesson learned. You have to look at the big picture and not just focus on one small piece of it if you are to succeed.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Kamala Harris. It would be incredible to hear her candid thoughts on the pressing issues of today with no cameras or reporters around.