Debra Sterling, Goldieblox, Woman Entrepreneur

I had been watching Debra from a far for quite awhile now.  Then a video came across my desk and I just had to reach out to her.   She has built Goldieblox for all those young girls who are tinkerers and engineers in training.  Tech companies are in need of more engineers and Debra thought why aren't we developing those young women to be the next engineering work force.

Debra grew up in Rhode Island, ten minutes north of Providence.  Her mother worked at a bank for years pointing people in the right direction.  At one point she had her own entrepreneurial moment starting a chocolate company and putting a kiosk in the local mall.  It never was financially successful but Debra remembers it well as she did slave chocolate labor for years.  Her father is a software engineer for companies that analyze data mostly around Saas systems.  Like most children Debra really didn't realize what her father did for years but always knew she'd score a lollipop when she would visit her Mom at the bank.

Debra has been working since she was 13/14 from the drive-thru coffee shop to the Gap to a swim instructor at the JCC to a receptionist at the lumberyard.  Anything to make cash.  After high school Debra moved across the country to attend Stanford.  She always thought she would go to UCLA because that is where her father went.  She was an honors student and it was her admissions director that recommended she apply to Stanford and so she applied to UCLA, Berkley and Stanford.  Stanford won out.

Her first couple of college summers she was a camp counselor.  Debra also did some time abroad in Santiago where she worked for a design and production company.  With a grant from Stanford she went to Florence to do a jewelry internship.  Her junior year abroad she studied in Barcelona. 

After graduating she began to search for jobs at Google, Microsoft and other large tech companies.  Instead Debra landed an internship in Seattle at a medium sized branding company.  She ended up landing a a real job there and worked mainly on creative stuff vs business.  The company had been purchased by Omnicom and so they began to take on some really large clients when she was there.  At 23 she was given the opportunity to lead the rebranding of the NY Knicks.  Lots of responsibility at a young age. 

Then Debra had her first career crisis. She felt like she wasn't doing anything that truly contributed to society and wanted to do something more fulfilling.  Strategizing around dog food packaging just wasn't doing it for her anymore.  She applied to VSO (Volunteer Services Overseas) which is a little bit like the Peacecorp.  She was accepted and landed in rural India.  She worked with a non-profit helping the indigenous Indians who were living in poverty educate themselves on how to provide better for their families.  Debra spent a lot of time communicating to their donors like Save the Children and Unicef.  She stayed seven months.  It was an amazing experience.  She was the only white person among a million people.  She'd hail a rickshaw and she did not even have to tell them where she lived because everyone knew who she was.

Towards the end of this experience she met a woman from the UK who would regularly visit the non-profit she was working for.  This woman was a photographer and she would raise money from her friends to provide mosquito nets, solar panels or other things and then document how that changed their lives.  She also tried buying one goat for every family as the goats were only $20.  Debra decided she would go home and do the same thing.  Her boyfriend, now her husband, and Debra started a campaign around raising money to buy each family a goat.  They created a UTube video that was a riff on the Andy Sandberg video "I'm on a boat" and did a rap and song around "I want a goat".  The video went viral and money started pouring in.  They even created a website that for extra money you could decorate your goat and name it on Facebook with a whole scavenger hunt piece.  They got over 250,000 million views and raised over $30K.  They were crowdfunding before crowdfunding became commonplace.  She went back to India to buy the goats (and other things because that is a lot of goats) but decided that she did not want to spend the rest of her life going back and forth to rural India. 

Debra returned to SF and began to looking for jobs and found a job as a marketing director of a jewelry company.  She had not found her life calling in India so she thought I loved jewelry making in Florence so maybe this will be my passion.  She worked at this company for two years.  She got to see how a small company is run, how to source handmade jewelry from Bali, how to design and package jewelry display, how to work with buyers at major department stores and speciality stores.  She wore every hat from shipping, selling and every aspect of the financials; it was a mini-business school stint.  Between India and jewelry the dots connected for her next venture.

Debra had a group of friends from Stanford who had graduated with her and settled in the area.  They were all working in different jobs.  They started a club called Idea Brunch.  They would go to a friends house on the weekend, have breakfast and talk about their latest idea for 5 minutes.  It was like a book club but for ideas.  At one of those breakfasts her girlfriend starting complaining about the lack of women engineers.  She talked about how she used to play with erector sets and construction toys with her brothers when she was young instead of dolls.  Her friend was espousing why are those toys called boy toys.  Debra said it was like rockets went off in her head.  She thought this is my calling.

The next day she went to the toy store to get an idea of the competitive landscape.  That is when she walked down the pink aisle.  She had not been in a toystore since she was 9 and now she felt like she was entering the Twilight Zone.  There was a gaping need for girl toys that were not around pink decorating ideas. What kind of product could she build that would get girls to use their brains and excite them. 

Her initial idea was to launch Goldieblox at the Toy Fair and one of her investors recommended she launch on Kickstarter to see what the market viability was.  It made complete sense.  She got feedback and got to play with price points.  It was the best move.  There was no doubt that this was a market dying for something like this.  After all, Debra raised $260K on Kickstarter. 

A year later Goldieblox launched in Toys R Us nationwide.  They are also in 500 independent stores across the country and Canada.  They are the top 20 best selling toys on Amazon.  Her sister joined the company and they recently moved out of her apartment to an office with seven employees.  Debra understands the importance of staying lean.  It was her road that led her here and she has used all that knowledge to make Goldieblox successful. 

It is a great story and Debra has done a very good thing but creating a product for the young women engineers of the world.  Watch the video.  It is awesome.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Ella Dyer

    Wonderful! As the grandmother of two young girls, I’m grateful to Debra and other female founders. Again Joanne, thanks for sharing such inspiration.

  2. Brenda Coffee

    Debra’s video gave me goosebumps, watching what could be the start of a generation of female techies and engineers. Bravo! Goldie Rocks!

    1. Gotham Gal

      Girl power

  3. AMT Editorial Staff

    We have a Goldieblox in the “activity cabinet”. Birthday present (requested by me) from family member. Our 7 year old hasn’t opened it yet…Also Roominate…another engineering type toy. http://www.roominatetoy.comGood idea. Need more.

  4. Ryan Drew

    You make a great point about the current state of (big box) toy stores.Profit motivation + attention grabbing = visual high fructose corn syrupI’m glad to read Goldiebox is bucking the toy packaging/intent trends.

  5. Liz Hamburg

    I love this. What a great idea and she sounds like an amazing entrepreneur. Thanks for introducing us to her Joanne.