Debbie Sterling - Building girls' futures

A woman smiling looking directly at the camera.

28 October 2014 3 minute read

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Debbie Sterling is the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a toy company that introduces girls to engineering

Debbie Sterling is an inspirational woman. After graduating from Stanford University, where she studied Mechanical Engineering and Product Design, Debbie worked briefly for a jewellery company before launching GoldieBlox, a construction-based game for girls. The aim of GoldieBlox is to 'get girls building', and to inspire a generation of future engineers. We invited Debbie to the Royal Academy of Engineering, to answer some of our questions and tell us more about her company. Her passion and drive are evident in everything she says, and it is obvious from the start that this cause is very close to her heart. "When I was studying engineering, there were very few women in my programme, and it always bugged me. I noticed male classmates going on to do incredible things that were changing the world, and I realised how important engineering is". The lightbulb moment, when she decided to start her own toy company, came while talking to another girl on her programme: "She grew up playing with the boys toys - since then she knew she wanted to be an engineer".

The gendered divide in the toy industry, with building and construction toys aimed at boys, and the pink aisle of dolls aimed at girls, is something which strongly affects the choices and abilities of children as they grow up. Debbie never played with construction toys as a kid, and only found out about engineering at university. "Growing up, I thought I should become an artist. I played with dolls, stuffed animals and lots of arts and crafts. There is a perception that engineering isn't creative - which is very far from the truth".

Introducing a relatable, fun and feminine character, who is also an engineer, is a way to make new role models for girls. Debbie made it clear that, for her, the problem is a cultural one; "There is no inherent intellectual difference between boys and girls, it is a cultural problem that we have, in pop culture in the US and UK the role models for kids and all the STEM characters are male. The engineering boys club starts very early. If boys and girls grow up admiring this character and thinking that she is cool, as they grow older they won't be as biased in thinking that boys should be the only ones doing science". Debbie herself is a great role model for girls, and certainly goes against the stereotype of what an engineer should look like. She is young, charismatic and approachable.

When it comes to her own story and inspiration, Debbie's passion and commitment are unparalleled. When asked about how she started the company, and what she would be doing if she hadn't, the answers are brief but sincere: "Starting a company didn't feel like a choice. I can't picture myself doing anything else". This doesn't mean that it was an easy task - after graduating, Debbie worked furiously during her lunch breaks, evenings and weekends, talking to neuroscientists, parents and teachers to refine her idea.

While she is sitting in front of us, articulate, motivated and friendly, it is hard to imagine Debbie Sterling as anything but a successful, self-confident woman. We ask her what piece of advice she would give to her teenage self and she taps into an issue that many women in STEM have: insecurity. "As soon as I chose engineering as my major, I watched my GPA plummet. I didn't think I was smart enough to do it – all my male classmates seemed naturally good at it. I almost gave up multiple times because I didn't want to feel stupid". So her piece of advice is to never feel stupid for trying, and never avoid things just because you're afraid you might not be good enough. "Most people who are good at stuff have to work really really hard, even if they seem to naturally ‘get it’".

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