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Women in Business: Q&A with Debbie Sterling, Founder of GoldieBlox

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Debbie Sterling is an engineer and founder of GoldieBlox, a toy company out to inspire the next generation of female engineers. She has made it her mission in life to tackle the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

As I continue along my career path and become more self-aware, I'm learning what I'm great at...and more importantly, what I'm not. Surrounding myself with people who can fill in the gaps, and allowing them to let their brilliance shine, is the key to my success as a leader.

How has your previous employment experience aided your current position at GoldieBlox?

On my graduation day from Stanford, I was lucky enough to hear Steve Jobs' infamous commencement speech. The message: "never settle" resonated with me deeply. Ever since that moment, I strove to find my passion. After college, I had a pretty circuitous career path - from branding the New York Knicks to volunteering in rural India. I went across the globe and back, never settling until I finally found my true passion: inspiring the next generation of female engineers.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

When you're truly passionate about your work, it stops being work. That's work/life balance for me.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at GoldieBlox?

I think every challenge we've faced so far has led to a highlight. For example, our Kickstarter video shoot wasn't as seamless as some may think. In fact, the entire first take got scrapped. Before the first filming, I had my hair straightened, got my makeup done, secured studio space and rented a professional film crew. After all this fuss, I watched the final product and couldn't see myself anymore. It didn't feel genuine. I decided to scrap the whole thing and re-shoot sitting on the floor of my apartment, with only my closest friends around me. It was rough. It was imperfect. But it was me. I learned to always stay true to myself.

What advice can you offer young individuals hoping to pursue a similar business model?

Make your voice heard, and don't be afraid to take chances. It starts by speaking up in meetings, and ends with going way outside of your comfort zone and establishing relationships with people or organizations that you normally wouldn't. This thought process led me to enter Shopify's Build A Business competition following our Kickstarter launch. To my excitement and surprise, the Shopify website helped us to secure tens of thousands of pre-orders, bringing us up to $1M in revenue in just a few months. If building a business from the ground up were easy, everyone would do it. Set yourself a goal and do whatever it takes to accomplish it, the end result will be worth it.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

In the fields where I've worked - engineering, entrepreneurship and toys - women are a minority. The biggest challenge is one of alienation and not feeling understood by your peers. It's important to stick to your guns and maintain your perspective.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?

As a woman taking on a leadership role, I found Sheryl's book inspiring and long overdue. In fact, it was her TED talk that helped give me the courage to start my own business. Imagine my surprise when Sheryl Sandberg herself became one of my first Kickstarter backers!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

When I cook at home, I like to look up a bunch of recipes and blend my favorite components to make my own unique dish. Similarly, I rely on a variety of different mentors to help inform my business decisions. It's not about having one soul-mate mentor. It's about making sure you have your bases covered in all aspects of business.Tina Roth Eisenberg, who I met through the Shopify competition, is a business mentor that truly touched my personal life. She encouraged me to create a fun company culture, and reminded me to always pause, reflect and celebrate successes through even the most hectic work days.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

My grandmother, Sterling, was one of the first female cartoonists and creators of "Mr. Magoo". I grew up marveling at her sketches. Even though she passed away before I was born, I have always looked up to her. Creating GoldieBlox has given me a new level of appreciation for how much work and courage it must have taken her, especially in those times. I am honored to be following in her footsteps.

What are your hopes for the future of GoldieBlox?

We feel beyond lucky to have seen this much success so far, but this only leads us to dream bigger and set new goals. This holiday season, we're introducing our second toy, "GoldieBlox and the Parade Float", teaching girls about wheels, axles and gear action. This is only the beginning toward building our ultimate goal: creating a girl engineer role model who will inspire kids around the world to find a passion in STEM.

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