'Engineering Toys For Girls' Shatter Gender Stereotypes

July 19, 2018

    By Christopher Lochhead & Heather Clancy, coauthors of “Niche Down(opens in new tab)

In short:

  • GoldieBlox(opens in new tab) is the first toy company aimed at making science and tech-themed toys specifically tailored for young girls.
  • Its founder, Debbie Sterling, launched her brand by first creating a clear problem: the lack of toys for this specific niche.
  • Despite industry pushback, Sterling established her product as a solution to the problem… and won.

Once upon a time, construction toys were mainly for boys. That wasn’t cool with Debbie Sterling.

Sterling graduated from Stanford University in 2005 with a degree in engineering and product design. She got to wondering why there weren’t any science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) toys geared toward girls.

So she niched down(opens in new tab).

Debbie founded GoldieBlox, a toymaker focused on getting girls interested in STEM disciplines. She made a toy that teaches kids to build belt drive machines(opens in new tab) and a box of mini construction pieces(opens in new tab) that serves as an early engineering lesson. This was a niche no one else in the toy market category saw.

And they weren’t very receptive to it either.

I kept hearing from industry veterans(opens in new tab) that my idea was a good cause, but it would never sell,” Sterling told Forbes. “I knew that if I wanted to make GoldieBlox successful, it meant I had to break down gender stereotypes that plague the industry. To this day, those outdated stereotypes continue to be my biggest challenge.”

GoldieBlox's Craft-Struction Box(opens in new tab) is designed to teach girls spatial skills, prototyping, and problem-solving.

Sterling was rejected by Y Combinator, an organization well-known in the tech industry for funding early-stage startups.

It’s no surprise: The VC universe is decidedly male-centric with its investments. In fact, just 2 percent of all funding(opens in new tab) doled out in 2017 went to female-founded firms. 

Sterling was angered, stunned and confused by that rejection, but she persisted. Like all legendary entrepreneurs, she’s a missionary, not a mercenary. And her intended audience has been quite receptive, even though the first Silicon Valley “bros” she approached for funding couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea.

The company -- the name is a wordplay on the fairy-tale heroine Goldilocks -- blew away its original Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $285,000 with a mocked-up prototype and handmade book. As of this writing, GoldieBlox has sold more than 1 million toys worldwide.

The company even helped the Girl Scouts develop a new STEM merit badge.

“Now I hear from parents and young kids from all over the world about how happy they are to have GoldieBlox and how fun STEM is,” Sterling said. “It’s really rewarding when I receive a letter from a kid who says they want to be an engineer when they grow up… They keep me going, even when times get tough.”

Category pull like GoldieBlox’s doesn’t happen for most companies. Most organizations make the mistake of chasing market share in existing categories designed by someone else. They play a game in which they have no chance of winning from the start.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs who design their own playing field(opens in new tab) or “write their own playbook” will find their services and products in high demand. Here's why:

Category design = Make demand

Branding = Fight for demand

Rather than trying to remarket existing construction toys to girls -- by creating a “Legos for Girls” brand, if you will – Sterling reimagined the category by starting from scratch. And she did it from the female point of view (POV). She let the thing that makes her different (being a female founder in a mostly male category) be the thing that made the difference. She approached the category in a unique way, one that resonated with her personally and that she could evangelize passionately and obsessively.

When the world “sees” the problem the way a category designer sees it, the worldview changes. When the world “saw” the desperate need for STEM toys for girls, it viewed GoldieBlox as the solution.

That’s the brilliance of a successful niche down.

Legendary entrepreneurs make their mark by identifying and articulating a problem and designing and evangelizing the solution. When that strategy is well-honed and executed, BOOM! The category crowns you its queen, as it did with Sterling.

Christopher Lochhead is host of the “Legends and Losers Podcast(opens in new tab)” and coauthor with Heather Clancy of “Niche Down: How to become legendary by being different.”

Heather Clancy is an award-winning journalist, coauthor with Christopher Lochhead of “Niche Down: How to become legendary by being different.” She is also editorial director for GreenBiz.com.

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