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GoldieBlox founder says 'engineer' must be in girls' vocabulary

Debbie Sterling's line of STEM toys is introducing girls to the concept of engineering at a young age.

Debbie Sterling talked to the audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

When Debbie Sterling took her first prototype of GoldieBlox to the New York Toy Fair, she had an inauspicious realization.

"I walked in and it was a bunch of old white men in suits," Sterling told the audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday during her keynote address.

Sterling, who graduated from Stanford University with a degree in engineering, started GoldieBlox, the company, in 2012 in conjunction with a Kickstarter campaign after a heap of rejection from the toy fair. She raised $285,881, beating her goal of $150,000. It's a toy line that includes books, construction sets, action figures and more featuring characters, including a little girl named Goldie, who likes to solve problems and build things.

GoldieBlox is part of a move to get girls interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at an earlier age. Studies, like a March 2017 report from Microsoft, show that girls tend to lose interest in STEM subjects around the time they get to high school. It's yet another potential off ramp at a time when the numbers of women in tech are already low.  

I spoke with Sterling at the conference about ignoring her GPA, creating a character who isn't a princess, and teaching 4-year-olds the word "engineer."

Q: You've said that you didn't know what an engineer was until high school. Why is it important to make sure girls know what that is early in life?
Sterling: The joke I always tell is I thought an engineer was a train driver. I think that may literally be because as a little kid, you have career flash cards and it's, like, here's the doctor, here's the nurse, here's the veterinarian and here's the engineer, and it's, like, a train conductor. The tough thing is engineering is so broad, but it's so important to introduce the concept of what an engineer is at a young age, because otherwise we're going to have so many kids, especially girls, just not even considering it when they go to college

You've talked about going to Stanford and being one of a few women in your classes. That can be off ramp for women -- what kept you in the major?
Sterling: Prior to Stanford, I was a straight A student. Engineering was really the first time in my life I didn't get an A. Up until that point, I placed so much value on my grades that I think a lot of women just drop out because we're raised to be such perfectionists. What kept me in is I was genuinely interested in the material, and I understood I was just really far behind the other students. I'd come from a public school. I hadn't had any engineering training before and most of my other classmates -- these are kids who came from private schools and had already been doing robotics. I got to the point where I was, like, OK, I'm probably in the bottom third [of the class] and I accept that. I'm probably not going to get straight As and that's OK. I'm not going to worry about my GPA. I'm going to stick in here and do my best because I'm interested in this. As soon as I made that mental leap, that was one of the main things that kept me in. I stopped caring about my GPA.

The other one that kept me in was I had to get over my own ego and I had to finally just be willing to just raise my hand and say, "I don't get this." It sounds so obvious, but I feel like so many young girls and women, again, because we're raised to be such perfectionists, they don't want to admit when they don't know something. As soon as I started doing that, things started to change.

During the keynote, you talked about how Goldie isn't a nerd but she also isn't a princess. Why was striking a balance there important?
Sterling: I was looking at the landscape of children's media, and there are so many stereotypes. Most of the girl characters are very shallow, materialistic, perfect, beautiful princesses who are into fashion. That's very aspirational. As a little girl, I aspire, I want to be beautiful, I want to have cool clothes, I want to be popular -- and that's an easy way for entertainment companies to create a character that girls will like. On the other hand, if you looked at the stereotypes of the smart girl, she's always the brunette with glasses in the corner with no friends. It felt, like, how do I create a character that every little girl wants to be, but she needs to be cooler than a princess. But does every little girl want to be a nerd? No.

GoldieBlox has a story component to the sets. What were some of the first messages or themes you wanted to get across to girls?
Sterling: The first product that we put out, which we launched on Kickstarter, was GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine. There were a bunch of things that I crammed in there. That toy probably targets girls between the ages of 4 and 6 and so maybe on the higher end, they're just starting to read. Some of the feedback I got early on from editors was, "You have the word 'engineering' in here. That word is too advanced, take it out." I insisted on leaving that word in because, to your point earlier, I want the word "engineer" to become a word that a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old would know.

Another one is I want girls to start becoming comfortable with failure and [the idea] that failure is just a natural part of being an engineer, or being an entrepreneur, an inventor, a leader. So in the first book, there's a moment where Goldie just doesn't know how to solve a problem.  

It's tricky because girls are raised to be so afraid of failure. The thing we've really tried to crack is here's a girl who actually fails all the time and that's OK. Sometimes she triumphs and sometimes she falls flat on her face, but she doesn't give up. Finding a way to tell that story and make that aspirational is the goal.   

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