20VC Overcoming The Engineer Boys Club, Disrupting The Pink Aisle & Why VCs Are Missing A Trick Not Investing In The CPG Space with Debbie Sterling, Founder & CEO @ Goldieblox

Summary Notes


In this episode of the 20 minutes VC, host Harry Stebbings interviews Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a toy company aiming to bridge the gender gap in STEM fields. Sterling shares her journey from discovering engineering in college to creating a business that challenges gender stereotypes in children's toys and media. Despite initial skepticism, GoldieBlox's success has influenced major shifts in the toy industry, including gender-neutral marketing and more empowering products for girls. Sterling emphasizes the importance of early exposure to STEM-related play for girls and the role of parents, teachers, and media in shaping children's career interests. She also discusses the dynamics of working with her co-founder and husband, the challenges of securing VC funding for consumer products, and her vision for GoldieBlox as a global franchise that inspires girls to embrace their maker phase.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the 20 Minute VC Podcast

  • Harry Stebbings introduces the third installment of the week's podcast.
  • Harry mentions the new app, 20 vc, for listeners to engage with show content.
  • Thanks Jason Humphries for his work on the app.
  • Invites feedback and interaction through the app.

"And you can also check out our fantastic new app, 20 vc, your centralized home for all things from the show so you can easily tag episodes and go back to them at later dates."

The quote explains the purpose of the 20 vc app, which is to enhance listener interaction with the podcast's content.

Introduction to Debbie Sterling

  • Debbie Sterling is the guest, founder and CEO of Goldie Blocks.
  • Goldie Blocks aims to disrupt the Pink Aisle and address the gender gap in STEM fields.
  • Debbie has been recognized as a leader in encouraging girls to pursue engineering and technology.
  • Goldie Blocks won a contest by Intuit to air a Super Bowl commercial.

"Debbie is the founder and CEO at Goldie Blocks, the award-winning toy company on a mission to disrupt the Pink Isle."

This quote introduces Debbie Sterling and her company's mission to challenge gender stereotypes in toy marketing and STEM education.


  • Harry thanks Julia Hartz at Eventbrite for introducing him to Debbie.
  • Harry also discusses his personal endorsements of Raiden luggage and Simba mattresses.

"I do also want to say a huge thank you to Julia Hartz at eventbrite for the intro Stebbi stay, without which this episode would not have been possible."

Harry attributes the arrangement of the interview with Debbie to Julia Hartz, suggesting the importance of networking in the podcasting industry.

Debbie Sterling's Background and Entry into Engineering

  • Debbie discovered engineering in college, despite having no prior exposure.
  • She attended Stanford University, coming from a small town public school.
  • Her high school math teacher suggested she consider engineering.
  • Debbie initially had misconceptions about engineering.
  • After taking an engineering class, she found her passion for solving problems and helping people.
  • She struggled due to a lack of prior engineering training and felt like an outsider as one of few women in her classes.
  • Earning her engineering degree was a proud moment due to the challenges she overcame.

"And coming from a small town and a public school, nobody in my town ever went to a school like Stanford."

This quote highlights Debbie's unique background and the significance of her acceptance into Stanford, setting the stage for her eventual career in engineering.

Creation of Goldie Blocks

  • The idea for Goldie Blocks came from a conversation with a friend about the lack of women in engineering.
  • Debbie's friend was influenced by playing with her brothers' engineering-based toys.
  • They recognized that exposure to engineering toys could influence more girls to pursue engineering.
  • Debbie felt that creating such toys was her calling, leading to the founding of Goldie Blocks.

"And she made the argument that most girls don't play with those toys because those toys were very explicitly boys' toys."

This quote captures the realization that led to the creation of Goldie Blocks, recognizing the role of early childhood toys in shaping career interests.

Challenges and Exclusion in Engineering

  • Debbie felt out of place in the "engineering boys club" at Stanford.
  • The engineering program was designed to weed out the weak, and Debbie struggled due to a lack of early engineering exposure.
  • She considered dropping out but persevered through the challenges.

"Well, I never really felt like I fit into the engineering boys club."

This quote reflects Debbie's feelings of exclusion and the challenges she faced in a male-dominated field, which were instrumental in her journey and the formation of her company's mission.

Gender Diversity in STEM Education

  • Debbie Sterling experienced feelings of exclusion and self-doubt as the only girl in male-dominated engineering classes.
  • She faced skepticism from classmates and teachers when she chose engineering as her major.
  • Sterling overcame challenges by viewing them as personal tests of her capabilities and commitment to feminism.
  • A pivotal moment for Sterling was outperforming her peers in a difficult engineering class, which reinforced her belief in her abilities.

"And so many times I was the only girl in all guy group projects. And I always just felt kind of ignored or pushed out. And it was difficult to fit in and difficult to feel like I was smart enough to be there."

The quote illustrates the isolation and difficulties Debbie Sterling faced as a woman in a male-dominated field, contributing to her determination to succeed and prove her worth.

"And I guess early on, I sort of took this as a challenge."

Sterling's response to skepticism was to see it as a challenge, which motivated her to persevere in her engineering studies.

"And there were, like, little moments like that where I'm like, wait a minute. I have what it takes. I can do this."

This quote highlights a moment of realization for Sterling, where she gained confidence in her abilities after succeeding in a tough engineering class.

The Root of Gender Stereotypes in STEM

  • Debbie Sterling believes the root of gender diversity issues in STEM begins in early childhood with gendered toys and media.
  • She argues that gender stereotypes are established around the ages of three or four, influencing children's perceptions of their capabilities and interests.
  • Sterling is focused on addressing the problem from the beginning, targeting the influences that cause girls to lose confidence and interest in STEM before middle school.

"And I believe that the root of the problem is that from as young as age three or four, and that's the age when kids start to form a sense of gender identity."

This quote emphasizes the early age at which children start forming gender identities and how this can lead to entrenched gender stereotypes that affect career choices later in life.

"But I've decided that my focus will be at the very beginning because I think that's where we lose the most of them."

Sterling's strategic focus is on the earliest influences in children's lives, where interventions can have the most significant impact on preventing the loss of interest in STEM among girls.

Accountability for Gender Stereotypes

  • Sterling argues that pop culture, particularly children's toys and media, plays a significant role in perpetuating gender stereotypes.
  • She points out the financial success of the princess culture and its influence on girls' interests and aspirations.
  • Sterling founded GoldieBlox to counteract these stereotypes by creating toys that encourage girls to engage in engineering and building.
  • A study showed that parents have unconscious biases towards gendered toys, affecting how they interact with their children during play.

"These big kids toys and media companies have found formulas that work."

The quote addresses how toy and media companies capitalize on gender stereotypes for financial gain, which in turn reinforces those stereotypes.

"Can you imagine how different things would be if instead of the focus always being on princess. What if the toy and media companies wanted every girl around the world to grow up having a maker phase?"

Sterling challenges the status quo by imagining a world where girls are encouraged to build and create, rather than just play with princess-themed toys.

"And what they found was that when the protagonist was a male, the parents actually played with it more with their daughters than when it was the female, because for some reason, they had this unconscious bias that boys are engineers."

This quote reveals the findings of a study that indicates parents' biases in how they play with gendered toys with their children, which can influence the children's self-perception and interests.

Inflection Point in Gender Diversity

  • Sterling believes we are at an inflection point in addressing gender diversity in STEM, as evidenced by the success of GoldieBlox.
  • Prior to GoldieBlox, there was widespread skepticism in the toy industry about girls' interest in building and engineering.
  • The success of GoldieBlox demonstrated market demand for empowering toys for girls, leading to industry-wide changes.
  • Sterling sees GoldieBlox as having a significant impact on encouraging toy companies to create more diverse and empowering products for girls.

"And then we launched Goldie blocks in 2012, and it practically went viral overnight."

The quote highlights the immediate success of GoldieBlox, which challenged the toy industry's assumptions about girls' interests.

"I think Goldie Blocks has played a huge role in not only pressuring those companies to do the right thing, but I think, more importantly, showing that they could make a lot of money doing it, too."

Sterling believes that GoldieBlox has been instrumental in driving change in the toy industry, both ethically and financially, by proving there is a profitable market for empowering girls' toys.

Virality of Promotional Videos

  • Debbie Sterling credits her co-founder and husband, Bo, for their viral success due to his experience with a viral video production company.
  • They aimed to make Goldie Blocks go viral by capturing Debbie's genuine passion for the project.
  • Authenticity was key; a reshoot on Debbie's living room floor with a more relaxed atmosphere proved successful.
  • Cameos from people with large audiences, like Tim Schaefer, helped spread their videos by leveraging existing follower bases.
  • Casting YouTube celebrities with large followings in their videos also contributed to virality.

"Well, I had a secret weapon, and that's my co-founder and husband, Bo." "We set out to recreate that in a video, but it's really hard to achieve that when you have a camera and light six inches from your face." "We convinced Tim Schaefer, who's the CEO and founder of Double Fine, one of the most successful Kickstarter backed companies."

These quotes emphasize the strategic planning behind creating viral content, highlighting the importance of authenticity, leveraging influential figures, and the challenges of replicating genuine enthusiasm on camera.

VC Funding and Product Industries

  • Debbie discusses the challenges faced by innovators in the children's space and physical product industries when seeking VC funding.
  • She believes VCs often avoid these areas due to misconceptions and a reluctance to take on inventory risk.
  • Debbie sees untapped potential in these markets for investors willing to be patient and strategic.

"So many VCs, they don't want to touch the children's space with a ten-foot pole." "I see so many really exciting young entrepreneurs and innovators who are tackling really, really hard problems and building really exciting things, and they're having trouble getting access to capital."

Debbie Sterling highlights the hesitancy of venture capitalists to invest in certain industries, pointing out the need for a change in perspective to support emerging entrepreneurs.

Goldie Blocks Business Model

  • Goldie Blocks does not view itself as a hits-driven business, focusing instead on creating an open-ended system of parts for children to explore engineering.
  • Debbie compares their approach to Lego, emphasizing the value of investing in a library of parts for creativity.
  • She recognizes the challenges hardware startups face in scaling, advocating for a measured approach to market entry and inventory management.

"I've never thought about our toys as a hits driven business because with Goldie blocks, my vision was from the very beginning, I just wanted to provide girls and boys with really great tools that could enable them to make things and get excited about engineering." "I think that there's a real opportunity for investors who can be helpful, who have had success themselves in the consumer product space and can bring capital to these kind of companies, maybe in a different way."

These quotes reflect Debbie's vision for Goldie Blocks as a tool for learning and creation, rather than a traditional toy company chasing the latest fad, and her call to investors to recognize the unique opportunities in the hardware and CPG spaces.

Ideal Investor Model

  • Debbie values investors who understand the importance of building a long-lasting brand.
  • She appreciates the patience and long-term strategy her investors have shown, focusing on incremental steps toward larger goals.
  • The ideal investor would help with retail distribution and prototyping, contributing to Goldie Blocks' growth.

"I think that the one thing that my investors have in common is I think that they really understand the power of building an incredible, long lasting brand." "Rather than focusing on short term gains, I think kind of thinking about the big picture and what it's going to take to get there and sort of breaking down that big, audacious, what do we want to be in 5-10 year goals into incremental, small, but manageable steps toward getting there."

In these quotes, Debbie Sterling describes the qualities she finds most valuable in investors, emphasizing their role in supporting a vision that extends beyond immediate financial returns.

Favorite Book: The Brothers Karamazov

  • Debbie Sterling's favorite book is "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • She believes the book has inspired her to become a better person.

"Okay, this is going to sound really nerdy, but the honest answer is that my favorite book is the brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky."

Debbie expresses her admiration for "The Brothers Karamazov," highlighting it as her favorite book and crediting it with personal inspiration.

Volunteering in India

  • Debbie's key learning from volunteering in India is recognizing her fortunate circumstances being born in the United States.
  • The experience deepened her commitment to empowering girls and women.

"I think my biggest learning is how fortunate I am to have been born in the United States and in a culture that even though there's still a long way to go in terms of gender equity, we're so much further along than countries like India, where women are really treated as second class citizens."

This quote encapsulates Debbie's reflection on her privilege and the cultural disparities in gender equity between the United States and India, which have fueled her passion for female empowerment.

Industry Advice on Husband and Wife Teams

  • Debbie disagrees with the common industry advice against husband and wife teams.
  • Her husband has been integral to the success of her company, GoldieBlox.

"I always hear that husband and wife teams should have a red flag, and I completely disagree."

Debbie challenges the industry skepticism surrounding spousal business partnerships, sharing her positive personal experience with her husband as a counter-example.

Biggest Mentor: Maxine Clark

  • Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop, became Debbie's mentor after reading an article about GoldieBlox.
  • Clark's mentorship was instrumental in GoldieBlox's participation in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

"That would be Maxine Clark, who's the founder and former CEO of build a bear workshop."

Debbie credits Maxine Clark as her most influential mentor, detailing how their relationship began and led to significant opportunities for GoldieBlox.

Work-Life Balance

  • Debbie initially lacked balance while building GoldieBlox, working non-stop.
  • Having a child forced her to find balance, improving her leadership and company management.

"Well, I think for the first four years of building GoldieBlox, I didn't have any balance."

Debbie reflects on her early years at GoldieBlox without balance and how motherhood unexpectedly taught her the importance of stepping back for personal and professional well-being.

Experience with Tony Robbins in Fiji

  • Debbie found Tony Robbins inspiring and enjoyed the company of fellow entrepreneurs.
  • A spontaneous dance party at the airport with peers was a memorable highlight.

"Oh, wow. Okay. I think Tony was incredible. He was hugely inspiring."

This quote captures Debbie's enthusiasm about her experience with Tony Robbins in Fiji, emphasizing the inspiration she gained and the camaraderie with fellow entrepreneurs.

The Next Five Years for GoldieBlox

  • Debbie aims to expand GoldieBlox into a global franchise on par with Barbie and Disney Princesses.
  • She envisions GoldieBlox influencing girls worldwide to embrace a "maker phase" after their "princess phase."

"But ultimately, what I really want to build is a global franchise of the size and scale and influence of Barbie, Disney princess, Jorah the Explorer."

Debbie outlines her ambitious vision for GoldieBlox's future, aspiring to create a powerful global brand that shapes the developmental experiences of young girls.

Conclusion and Promotion

  • Harry Stebbings expresses gratitude to Debbie Sterling for her participation.
  • Promotion of GoldieBlox for Christmas and Debbie's Twitter handle.
  • Harry promotes the app, his Snapchat, and products Raiden and Simba, encouraging feedback and interaction.

"What a truly special guest. And I want to say huge thank you to Debbie for giving up her time today to appear on the show."

Harry concludes the podcast by thanking Debbie for her insights and contributions, and then transitions into promotional content for various products and platforms.

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