Had enough of Barbie’s Dream House? Ever wonder why dolls and tiaras and pink party dresses fill the “girl” aisles of the toy store?
After one such stroll down the isle with one of my grand daughters, I was reminded about the stereotypical thinking around “girl tech”. In one of my previous roles, a team was pitching me on ideas on how to address the girl or women tech market. After watching a parade of product ideas, I stopped the meeting and chastised the team for thinking that all they needed to do was to “pink it and shrink it”. As a father of daughters and now with two grand daughters, this one meeting stuck with me as proof of how narrow minded the tech industry had become.
Well — someone else had had enough too!
One of my favorite innovation stories is that of the company GoldieBlox. The founder of the company, Debbie Sterling, had been inspired by a high school math teacher to pursue engineering. She went to Stanford and loved her engineering major, until about halfway through when she struggled in an engineering drawing course and was humiliated in front of the class by the professor.
It turns out this happens to many female students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors. When the work gets more challenging, they start to question whether they really “belong” in the field. Men who experience the same academic challenges are less likely to drop out or change majors because they have stronger support systems and have gotten the cultural message since childhood that these are “male” fields in which they definitely do belong.
Despite the setback, as she shared in her TED Talk, Sterling didn’t give up. She studied hard and earned her degree in Mechanical Engineering and Product Design. After graduating, she did some research as to why she had struggled in the drawing class?
The answer: like many other girls, she had underdeveloped spatial skills.
Why is that?
Hint: it’s not genetic.
Girls lose interest in STEM fields as early as kindergarten because the toys they usually get to play with don’t encourage building and spatial manipulation like “boys’ toys” such as Lego’s, Lincoln Logs, and Erector sets. The toys that are marketed to girls – dolls, makeup sets, cooking kits – put them at a disadvantage in engineering skills from very early childhood. Simply put, girls are encouraged to be princesses, not builders.
After graduating from Stanford, Sterling made it her goal to “disrupt the pink aisle” with a toy that would get young girls interested in engineering. Worldwide, women make up only about 14% of all engineers. For Sterling, it was time to change that – to invent the self-rescuing princess. GoldieBlox combines story books with construction sets that encourage girls to solve problems by building simple machines.
Sterling’s idea was initially shot down by many toy stores who thought her product wouldn’t sell. The track record of success for “girl only” tech toys and games is not stellar and like most people in a position to fund new ideas, they relied on the past failures to justify why it wouldn’t work now.
So — instead of taking no for answer, she turned to Kickstarter, and reached her funding goal within days. Clearly, there was a hunger for these kinds of toys among many parents and young girls – and the company’s success has proven it.
From Frustration To Innovation Success
Sterling turned her personal frustration into a success. She recognized the gap in the market that resulted in her struggling through that drawing class, and used that frustration to fuel her passion. Even though experts told her an engineering toy for girls would never be successful, she knew there was something missing from the market and stuck with her idea.
Though the market can be great at fostering innovation, it often gets stuck in the same old self-perpetuating ruts – blue building toys for boys, pink princess dolls for girls – because no one wants to take the risk of exploring other options. Sterling knew she was taking a risk, but did it anyway. Early struggle and rejection only emboldened her in her goal of making it easier for girls to envision themselves as makers, builders, and innovators – women like Sterling herself.
Sterling used her personal struggle as inspiration to fill a huge need in the market. Sometimes learning to innovate not only means overcoming failures, it means really delving into those failures and figuring out why they happened, and how to help others like yourself avoid them.