You’ve seen it at toy and department stores: the pink aisle. The one with toys for girls.

Now, at Children’s Fairyland we heartily support princesses, male and female alike. Imaginative play is crucial for all kids’ development. But as one new woman-owned, Oakland-based company says, girls are more than just princesses—they are the future engineers of the world.

That company, GoldieBlox, is dedicated to disrupting the pink aisle. And it’s trying to get that message to more than 100 million viewers around the world through a 30-second spot during the 2014 Super Bowl. And you can help make it happen.

Debbie Sterling, the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, holds a degree in mechanical engineering and product design from Stanford, where she was one of only a few women in the program. Even before college, she’d had the idea of developing a toy that would introduce young girls to the joys of engineering.

At first, Debbie’s journey was a solitary one. “It really was a huge research project,” she says. “I took a lot of people out for coffee.” A prototype that taps into girls’ strong verbal skills and love of storytelling tested “really strong,” and so last year Debbie launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $150,000, the amount she needed to start production of GoldieBlox. The campaign was set to last for 30 days. When the goal was reached on Day 4, Debbie knew she was on to something big. By the end of the campaign, she had raised more than $285,000. “Oh my God, here we go!” was Debbie’s reaction.

With the cash infusion, Debbie hired her first employee and rented office space in Oakland off I-880—even though she lives in San Francisco. When she’d worked for an Oakland-based jewelry designer, Lori Bonn, Debbie had come to know and like our city. She also points to the “creative class” she sees in the East Bay, citing companies like Pixar, Leapfrog and Green Toys. Another factor in her decision: Rents in the city across the Bay are prohibitively high.

Finally, there’s the most important factor: families. “In Oakland, we’re closer to more families and schools,” Debbie says. “Kids are in our office constantly, testing prototypes. We’re inspired being around them.”

Debbie’s husband Beau Lewis has played a key role in the company’s success by creating a brilliant video that went viral. In it, girls build a customized skateboard and a bicycle sidecar to hold a teddy bear, proudly sporting “Not Just a Princess” T-shirts. The video spurred demand, and the company took pre-orders totaling more than $1 million.

At that point, Debbie was able to make some key hires, including Jan Hanson, formerly the vice president of operations for Cranium, another learning game. GoldieBlox now has 13 employees.

GoldieBlox products are now sold at Toys R Us and at more 600 independent toy stores in the U.S. and Canada. (Find a store near you by using the store locator at

Earlier this year GoldieBlox entered a contest run by Intuit, the financial-software company, to win a free 30-second ad to be broadcast during the third quarter of the Super Bowl in January. From among 15,000 applicants, GoldieBlox was selected as one of the four finalists. Now the public gets to choose the one winner.

“A win would be not only a game changer for our woman-owned business that’s proudly based in Oakland,” Debbie told me, “but it also would spread the message to 100 million people around the world that little girls deserve options that will build their confidence in spatial skills.”

Goldie Blox’s website points out that, in a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math, girls lose interest in those subjects as early as age 8. GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Debbie and her colleagues passionately believe there are a million girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet. Debbie thinks her little game can show them the way.

Debbie says all of her employees are passionate about their social mission, and about the GoldieBlox games now sold in the construction section—not the pink aisle—in toy stores. They say the Super Bowl contest is their way of making history.

Or, as the architecture and design blogger for The Guardian (UK) wrote last October: “Move over, Barbie, there’s a new girl in town.”

You can vote for GoldieBox at the Small Business Big Game website once a day, every day, until the Nov. 30 deadline.

One Response

  1. Casey Farmer, Policy Analyst for Councilmember McElhaney

    C.J. – Thanks for this fabulous article. It’s exciting to learn about innovative companies driven to create social change – as well as to learn about how many of them choose to operate in Oakland.


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