An up-and-coming startup CEO found her winning idea thanks to a weekend tradition with college friends

Debbie Sterling, headshot, GoldieBloxCourtesy of Debbie SterlingDebbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox.

Good news: Your seemingly futile college traditions may be more valuable than you think.

Debbie Sterling, the founder and CEO of girls construction toy company GoldieBlox (No. 59 on the BI 100: The Creators), told Business Insider in a recent interview that the inspiration for her company came from a tradition she shared with college friends called an “idea brunch.”

“We’d get together once every few months and make breakfast and each person would get up in front of the group and share an idea — an art project, a company, or an app,” Sterling said.

At one particular idea brunch in 2011, a friend of Sterling’s, who studied mechanical engineering with her at Stanford, expressed her frustrations about the lack of women in STEM. The friend said she’d played with her brothers’ hand-me-down construction toys as a child and now realised the toys led to her interest in engineering. She wondered aloud if the absence of engineering toys for young girls was responsible for the gender gap in STEM (today, just 14% of engineers worldwide are female). The idea was obvious, yet potentially groundbreaking, Sterling recalled.

Sterling spent the next nine months studying the toy industry and children’s media, meeting with neuroscientists and preschool teachers, and observing kids play.

“I came up with an ‘aha’ that construction toys do really help develop spatial skills and are a good precursor for engineering, but they have been heavily marketed toward boys for over 100 years,” Sterling said. Tailoring construction toys for girls — rather than simply painting boys’ toys pink — would be the key to creating a lasting product, she determined.

In 2012, Sterling founded GoldieBlox with the vision of creating a “character franchise” similar to children’s pop culture icons like Dora the Explorer, spanning toys, cartoons, video games, merchandise, and apparel. But her character universe would enter uncharted territory on a quest to “disrupt the pink aisle” and encourage young girls to explore maths, engineering, and science.

To date, GoldieBlox has sold more than 1 million narrative-driven construction toy sets, created an award-winning mobile app, and landed a coveted $4 million Super Bowl spot for free.

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