Five years on, GoldieBlox founder still upending engineering gender roles

Jan. 3, 2018
This month in Chicago, the 2018 ASHRAE Winter Conference & AHR Expo will hear from mechanical engineer Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, the toy company on a mission to "disrupt the pink aisle." Watch these videos for a preview of Sterling's keynote.

From the #MeToo movement to the new TIME'S UP campaign, this extraordinarily historic moment in gender relations will invariably be on the minds of many this month when engineer-entrepreneur (and working mom) Debbie Sterling, 34, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, takes the stage as keynote for the 2018 ASHRAE Winter Conference and AHR Expo in Chicago.

Founded in late 2012, GoldieBlox bills itself as an award-winning children’s multimedia company "disrupting the pink aisle" in toy stores globally and challenging gender stereotypes with the world’s first girl engineer character. It was Sterling's own journey of discovery that led her to an unanticipated love of engineering. Her goal now is to make sure that more young girls everywhere are made aware of those opportunities. 

From the GoldieBlox blog: "She never knew what engineering was until her high school math teacher suggested she pursue it as a college major. Debbie couldn't figure out why her math teacher thought she should be a train conductor! Nevertheless, she gave engineering a try during her freshman year at Stanford. Four years later, she graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering / Product Design. Bothered by how few women there were in her program, Debbie became obsessed with the notion of 'disrupting the pink aisle' with a toy that would introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age."

  • Below, the company's celebratory video on its third anniversary in September 2015.

To date, according to the company, its app has been downloaded over one million times and more than a million of its products have been sold worldwide with the help of 6,000 retailers.

But from the beginning, sales have not been the only goal. Sterling had her sights set on actual societal change.

Toward that end, with evangelical fervor, GoldieBlox has reached many millions of consumers through TV, radio and diligent digital marketing. Its energetic efforts helped make it the first start-up to win a free Super Bowl commercial and later a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 2014, Fast Company named GoldieBlox to its list of "Most Innovative Companies", and the product also captured the Toy Industry Association's "Toy of the Year" and Apple's iOS App of the Year awards. In 2015, GoldieBlox won Parents Magazine’s "Toy of the Year" and Sterling was named by President Obama as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship. She was also honored by the National Women’s History Museum with a “Living Legacy” Award for her work inspiring girls.

Of course, Sterling first had to earn all those accolades, and the early days of her start-up were not always easy. Far from it. Below, in her popular TedxTalk from 2013, Sterling recounts the challenges, doubts, and inspiring encouragement she encountered in her first, most difficult year of disruption.

For more information about Sterling's appearance in Chicago this month, and the 2018 ASHRAE Winter Conference and AHR Expo, click here.

About the Author

Rob McManamy | Editor in Chief

An industry reporter and editor since 1987, McManamy joined HPAC Engineering in September 2017, after three years with, a Chicago-based media startup focused on tech innovation in the built environment. He has been covering design and construction issues for more than 30 years, having started at Engineering News-Record (ENR) in New York, before becoming its Midwest Bureau Chief in 1990. In 1998, McManamy was named Editor-in-Chief of Design-Build magazine, where he served for four years. He subsequently worked as an editor and freelance writer for Building Design + Construction and Public Works magazines.

A native of Bronx, NY, he is a graduate of both the University of Virginia, and The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Contact him at [email protected].