When Debbie Sterling was a high school senior in rural Rhode Island and plotting a college path, a math teacher recommended engineering as a major.
"I was thinking of this old man driving a train," Sterling recalled. The field "seemed male, nerdy, unappealing. I had pictured myself doing art."
A science-based career hadn't crossed her mind. "I was embarrassed because I didn't know what engineering was and I couldn't ask her, she said. " But her teacher's recommendation turned out to be prescient.
Partly inspired by a mentorship with famed inventor David Kelley—think the first Apple computer mouse; the stand-up toothpaste tube—Sterling launched a small toy company last year. About a week ago, she announced a deal with Toys "R" Us. The retail giant nationwide will feature Goldie, a female engineer character—specifically designed to promote engineering among girls. The toy is also available on Amazon.com.
"I wanted to create a girl engineer role model," said Sterling, founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based start-up GoldieBlox. Instead of just playing with dollhouses, she thought, why can't more girls build their own dollhouses?
More Design Thinking, Fewer Pink Aisles
The small business GoldieBlox can be traced to breakfast. Sterling had joined her friends in San Francisco for a gathering called "idea brunch" to eat and pitch business concepts. (Yes, this is what goes down on a Silicon Valley weekend.)
Sterling and her friends reflected on slim ranks of female engineers. While women have advanced in business, medicine and law, they trail in other science-related areas, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which focuses on entrepreneurship. Women comprise under 18 percent of total bachelor's degrees awarded in computer sciences and engineering; under 28 percent for master's degrees in those two fields; and under 22 percent for related doctorate degrees, according to national education statistics.
The brunch conversation shifted to their childhood and toys. Some of the women grew up with dolls, others Lincoln Logs. Curious, Sterling cruised a toy store aisle for girls. There were ironing boards, cupcake-making contraptions and an explosion of pink. "There was nothing for girls that used their brains. The boys section was full of chemistry kits," Sterling said. "I knew there was a huge gap in the marketplace," Sterling said.
Before diving head-first into developing a toy prototype, she reflected on her Stanford University training. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering and product design. Stanford's unique combination of course work later led to the d.school, founded by inventor Kelley—who was Sterling's mentor. In college, she absorbed lessons about innovation, entrepreneurship and so-called design thinking, which fuses human behavior with design.
The Steve Jobs Connection
Inventor Kelley argues we collectively need to remove the fear and uncomfortable quality associated with creativity—too often considered the domain of a select few. We shouldn't divide the world into "creative" and "non-creative," he told TED in a talk last year. Let people realize they are naturally creative, argues Kelley, a longtime friend and colleague of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Hoping to tap into her own creativity, Sterling hunkered down in research, namely watching children play. She quickly discovered girls broadly love to read. Boys, in contrast, build things.
Sterling observed a typical child's playroom that features books on one side, construction toys on the other. "Why are they separate?" she asked. The idea for Goldie was born.
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The Crowdfunding Phenomenon
GoldieBlox is a series of interactive books and construction toys starring Goldie. Her stories encourage girls to build, developing spatial skills that are fundamental to engineering. While the book story unfolds, girls get to construct what Goldie builds.
In a spinning machine story, for example, Goldie is fascinated by her dog chasing his tail and a music box, in which a figurine rotates. Then by picking up the physical toy—which includes a peg board, spools and ribbons—girls eventually end up building a belt drive, an advanced engineering concept used in cars.
Science knowledge aside, Sterling's path to entrepreneurship has included mining crowdfunding. She turned to Kickstarter in 2012 to raise money to build a Goldie prototype. The Kickstarter goal was to raise $150,000 in 30 days. They reached that mark in four days, and eventually raised $285,000. Within a few months, they reached $1 million in pre-sale orders. The first toys, which retail for about $30 each, were shipped in March this year.
Crowdfunding is exploding, allowing aspiring entrepreneurs and other amateurs to raise funds for a variety of projects including toys, clothing, filmmaking and political campaigns. And it turns out the platform can serve as a barometer of sorts, telegraphing what might capture consumers' attention down the line—when the products still are being developed.
"We're spending an enormous amount of time, I would say, on a couple of areas. One is crowdfunding," venture capitalist Marc Andreessen told CNBC on Thursday. "We think there's a whole phenomenon around how the economy can work if you can basically uncover signals, you know in advance, that consumers want to buy products before they get built," Andreessen said.
Sterling and her staff of six at the toy company are focused on a growth strategy including more stories and complementary physical toys. They're tinkering with new character ideas, new Goldie friends. "I want to give girls an engineer mindset," Sterling said. "Just grab pieces from around the house and you can build anything you want."
—By CNBC's Heesun Wee; Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee
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