Debbie Sterling was disappointed by the lack of women in her engineering class at Stanford, so she made it her mission to get more girls interested in the industry.
The 32-year-old created GoldieBlox, an interactive toy containing a book series and construction set. The stories feature Goldie, a girl inventor who solves problems by building simple machines.
From humble beginnings - Debbie used Kickstarter to raise funds in 2012 - GoldieBlox has sold over $1 million (over £620,000) worth of product in less than a year.
The toy has just launched in the UK, so we thought it was about time we found out more about the women stamping out gender stereotypes.
Describe your average day.
I don’t have a routine - practically every day is different from the last, which I think is typical for an entrepreneur.
But I usually get up at around 8am and head over to the office where I play a lot of roles - I'm the CEO, the creative visionary and the spokesperson.
One moment I’ll be on the phone doing a press interview, the next I’ll be in a big creative brainstorming session. Then I might be in a strategic meeting with my key leadership team and in the evening, I’m sometimes at networking events.
You sound pretty busy, how do you maintain work-life balance?
I always make sure to take breaks – I never like to go a week and a half without a real day off. To me, time off means I’m not on work email and I’m spending quality time with friends and family.
When your work is your passion, sometimes its difficult to distinguish between the two.
What do you do to relax?
I really like running, before I started the company I ran two marathons. Although I haven’t found the time to train for another marathon since launching GoldieBlox, I do enjoy running in the Golden Gate park in San Francisco.
I also find cooking really relaxing and reading, too. I read fiction because it helps me to escape.
GoldieBlox is designed to get girls interested in engineering, why is that important to you?
I studied engineering at Stanford, there were very few women in my programme and that bothered me. It bothered me even more after graduation when I saw the types of careers my male classmates were going into. They were starting companies like Facebook - literally.
My male classmates were doing amazing, important work and that's when I realised what a shame it was that there weren't more women involved.
Why do you think there are so few women working in STEM?
Engineering, maths and science are male dominated fields and I think they can often be portrayed in a negative ways to girls.
As a little girl I pictured a scientist as a white man, with white hair, sitting at a desk all day with a lab coat and no friends – and that wasn’t the way I saw myself. As a creative person, I never thought a career in engineering would be for me.
The truth is, engineering can actually be quite creative. Once I took my first engineering class it really blew me away.
There must be so many little girls in the world who are just like me, that have the ability to be engineers but just haven't thought about it before.
As a woman in business, have you faced any obstacles relating to your gender?
One challenge I faced early on was when I applied to a start-up accelerator programme.
It was a male dominated, very elite programme and when I showed up to the interview day I immediately felt I wasn’t welcome there.
I had my prototype in my hand and covered by a cloth to keep it secret, and one of the guys in the room asked me if I had bought cookies for everyone.
The judges were all male and I felt there was a lack of understanding about where I was coming from with my product.
The Goldiblox website says you aim to “disrupt the pink isle in toy stores”, what is it about the more traditional toys for girls that you don't like?
I grew up as a girly girl myself, I played dress-up and played with dolls, so I don’t want to bash those.
But my problem is that you walk into a toy store and, what is clearly supposed to be the girls' section, is packed full of fashion dolls, tea sets after ironing boards.
I would never want any girl to feel ashamed if she likes playing with those things, but I do think girls are more mulitfacted than that. They deserve to see a wider range of things to play with.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in setting up the business?
There’s a lot of conventional wisdom in the toy industry that girls like dolls and boys like building. Getting over that stereotype and educating parents was a challenge, and continues to be a challenge.
How do you give back to the community?
We donate 1% of revenue to charities that promote girls in STEM and also regularly host children in our office to engage in activities about invention.
I very frequently go out and help with after school programmes. I tell kids my story because I think hearing about a woman in business can make a big difference to how they think about careers.
What advice do you have for other women starting their own business?
My biggest advice is don’t try to do it alone. You need to put yourself out there, even if your idea is only half-baked and scribbled on a napkin, show it to people and get feedback.
If you get rejected that's okay because it's totally normal. If you're passionate about something you will find other people want to be part of it too.
How do you feel about GoldieBlox launching in the UK?
I’m thrilled we’re launching in the UK. I think the shortage of women in technology is a global issue – these cultural norms aren’t just in the US, they’re everywhere. I really hope GoldieBlox can inspire girls all over the world to look into engineering.
GoldieBlox is now available on Amazon.co.uk, John Lewis, Hamleys and lots of independent toy shops in the UK.