While studying mechanical engineering at Stanford, Debbie Sterling was shocked by how few women were in her classes. In an effort to encourage more women to join the field, Sterling decided to launch a startup that would tackle the problem from the ground up — literally.
Sterling’s company GoldieBlox is a children’s toy company known for its main character Goldie, the world’s first girl engineer to be marketed to kids. Since 2012, Sterling has sold more than 1 million construction sets with the hopes of getting girls interested in engineering at an early age. The numbers are bleak — just some 14% of engineers worldwide are women — but Sterling thinks her brand stands to have an impact. That’s why Goldiblox announced last week that it is scaling the company beyond toys into chapter books as well. Partnering with Random House, Goldiblox will launch a series of books about Goldie and her friends in early 2017.
Last week I attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford along with Sterling, where we caught up on how Goldiblox is going, her new partnership with Random House and the issues facing female founders today.
Caroline Fairchild: Give me a little background on how Goldiblox started.
Debbie Sterling: Ever since the beginning, I wanted to build a global franchise around empowering girls. I don’t want to think of it as the anti-princess movement, but more the more-than-princess movement. I studied models like American Girl and Disney princesses and those franchises that really built these pop culture icons that influence girls at a young age. The way they do that is multi-platform. They have toys, apps, bed sheets, dolls and lifestyle items. They completely encompass a young girl’s life. I wanted to do the same thing, but instead of it being a princess, I wanted to make it about inventing, making, engineering and coding. A lot of times those big companies that have these big properties, they can spend four years getting everything ready. But as a startup in my living room, that wasn’t an option. I started with a construction set because of my mechanical engineering background.
CF: It sounds like you are growing a lot right now at a time when most people are talking about a slowdown in startupland. Why are you scaling across product lines now?
DS: What we have been able to do in the last four years is create this amazing brand that moms love. That is really hard to do. The brand stands for something so much greater than toys, so transitioning into other platforms because of the strength of the brand has been a natural next step for the company. In order to grow into these other platforms, we don’t have to do it ourselves. It’s about finding best-in-class partners who can do it justice. The Random House partnership is a licensing deal. We don’t need extra capital to do chapter books because Random House is investing in the books and we get the royalties. In a time when things are slowing down, because of this powerhouse brand we’ve built, we can grow without a lot of capital investment.
CF: Was it hard to give up some control?
DS: We still get to keep the creative control over the characters, which was really important to me. Goldie is never going to have a tiara, ever. Random House found the most amazing author who is a children's book author and a mechanical engineer. We went through so many authors before we found her. We have been developing character bibles for the past four years, so she is going off of those. The stories, though, bring it to life.
CF: What’s the biggest challenge you are working through right now?
DS: One of the biggest challenges is getting more awareness amongst kids. We’ve done a good job of marketing to moms, but kids are notoriously hard to market to. The holy grail is when you have a brand that kids love and moms approve of and not many brands have that. Lego has that, for example, and I think we have that to, but what we don’t have multi-million dollar marketing budgets to spend on national television commercials. We can’t afford to do that. The biggest challenge is that we are competing against the mega-huge princess, pony and fairy companies that are bombarding girls. We are all fighting for their attention.
CF: So why do you think you’ll still win?
DS: Girls today are different today than they were in the past. These girls are empowered, and they love inventing and making stuff. The play patterns are shifting as well; these girls are more digital and they are entrepreneurial. They are not wanting to be confined by the limiting gender stereotypes of the past. What our brand is offering is very different than all of the old. We are not just trying to sell them crap. We really care. We really want to empower them and encourage them and make them feel proud of it. Long term, I think that is going to win.
CF: We are at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford. What’s been the most compelling thought that has come out of the discussions today?
DS: I just got out of a panel around crowdfunding and angel investing. It was a packed room of entrepreneurs from around the world, and I feel really lucky that I live here in Silicon Valley and I was a Stanford alum. I had so many great advantages. I look at the stats of the lack of capital going to women and the lack of women entrepreneurs, and it bothers me and is something I want to change. But at the same time, the people in that room were women and they were all speaking up and they want to know who is investing in women and where to go. It was so great to be there and be one example of success. I hope I inspired these women to stick with it. You have to have a lot of grit. You can’t give up at the first no or the hundredth no. You have to keep going for it.
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