A force to be reckoned with, Debbie Sterling is one of the most disruptive individuals in the toy industry right now. Disillusioned by not only the lack of women in her Stanford engineering class, but by the troubling void of representation in her field as a whole, she set out on a mission to encourage more women into STEM.
Aardvark Swift spoke to Debbie about her experience as a woman in the toy industry trying to shake things up, and to ask if the toy industry boardroom is still stuck in the pink and blue.
So, how do you get young girls into engineering? Debbie believes that the answer lies in the toys in which we are given at a young age. Toys which build spatial awareness, a crucial skill of any engineer’s repertoire, are traditionally marketed to boys. Because of this, many women grow up with underdeveloped spatial skills, putting them at a distinct disadvantage when carrying out engineering tasks such as drawing in 3D. Previous attempts to market engineering toys to girls, however well intentioned, had simply painted a tool box pink and called it a day. Debbie however, believed there had to be a better way.
The then fresh Stanford graduate spent a year researching how best to get girls enthusiastic about an engineering toy before presenting her idea to the public. Her studies led her to two simple conclusions: boys like building and girls like reading. Her idea was to simply combine the two together, getting the best of both worlds. By marrying the stories of the aptly named tool belt wearing girl inventor Goldie Blox, who solves problems by building machines, together with construction toys which can be built alongside the story, Debbie created GoldieBlox.
Selling the world’s first girl engineer character to an industry seemingly dominated by men wasn’t easy however. The toy industry presented an all too familiar environment. “There is absolutely gender disparity in the toy industry.” says Debbie. Debbie has previously described the shock she experienced during her first visit to the American International Toy Fair, and just how many white men dominated the event.
Scenarios like this weren’t uncommon for Debbie either. “Before I launched GoldieBlox, and it was just an idea, I was met with a lot of discouragement”. On one occasion, when walking into a meeting with an incubator staffed entirely by men, Debbie was jokingly questioned as to if she would be presenting a new line of cookies. Though perhaps a small comment, the action was certainly symbolic of a wider problem the industry faces.
“When presenting the idea, the toy industry was still running on the outdated premise that girls only liked playing with dolls and boys liked building. Even worse, many thought these play patterns were innate and could not be changed.” says Debbie. “Luckily I knew my idea was strong. I had created a unique character and a product that I believed in.”
Debbie looked to alternative means of funding GoldieBlox and, by September 2012, launched an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign. “Once we took the idea to Kickstarter, consumers immediately responded to GoldieBlox.” After just 24 hours fans had pledged over half of the campaign’s $150,000 goal, which steadily rose to over $285,000 by the month-long campaign.
“People didn’t initially think this idea would work, but we proved that there was a market for construction toys for girls, and if approached in the right way could be very successful.”
“Our mission was to disrupt the pink aisle, which we did.” says Debbie. “Since GoldieBlox launched, retailers have started to do away with the “blue” and “pink” aisles in stores. This is a huge win for not only GoldieBlox, but for the toy industry as a whole.”
Debbie’s success has proven that toys need not abide by limiting stereotypes to be successful. Not long after the success of the GoldieBlox Kickstarter campaign, Hasbro unveiled a gender neutral black and silver Easy Bake Oven after complaints that the pink and purple model currently on offer was too targeted towards girls. In fact, earlier this year, Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner told Hollywood Reporter that he attributed their stocks hitting an all-time high due to pivoting from their original gendered focus.
While Debbie believes the toy industry is becoming more receptive to toys like GoldieBlox, she believes that we still have a way to go. “Similar to tech, toy companies tend to be male-dominated.” says Debbie. “I believe there’s a correlation between management and the products that make it to consumers. If we’re leaving women’s voices and perspectives out, then our products will continue to be stuck in the past.”
“It is extremely important that we have more women working in leadership roles in both tech and toy industries. We need to work together, make the toy industry a welcoming environment for women, and promote more women to leadership roles.”
By dismantling the concept of the pink aisle, Debbie has done a great service in combating the old yet persistent gender stereotypes that still plague us to this day. She has done fantastic work with GoldieBlox, taking her company from strength to strength. With more products and books on the horizon, and even becoming the first small business to air an ad during the Super Bowl, Debbie Sterling is a shining example that women can succeed in a traditionally male dominated industry.
Aardvark Swift recruit within the toy industry and are committed to promoting and improving diversity.