image_thumb[2]In honor of Engineers Week, I thought I’d highlight a neat new company I’ve been watching with interest. GoldieBlox – a start-up founded by Debbie Sterling. Debbie is a mechanical engineer. She shares the same concern that most in our industry have: why aren’t more girls going into engineering?

Unlike some career paths which are bastions of manhood and very hostile and unwelcoming to women, I think engineering is hardly so. Engineers are generally very focused on smarts and output, and barely care about (or even notice!) a person’s gender or other physical traits. Given that most “boy nerds” grew up with some level of social ostracism as punishment for their smarts; adult boy nerds are rarely prone to exhibiting discrimination based on outward appearance. Rather, geeks of all types tend to band together based on their common love of math and science. Our field, as a whole, is very concerned about the shortage of engineers. Especially female engineers. So, a lot of effort is being invested in studying and trying to remedy the problem.

There are lots of theories about why girls don’t tend to gravitate towards engineering in school. Debbie Sterling apparently got to musing that young girls don’t play with the sorts of toys which encourage skill-building along the lines of spatial, mechanical and structural concepts, in the same way boys do. We all know the “boy aisle” of a toy store is loaded with Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Legos, Transformers, and all sorts of building toys. The “pink aisle”, as Debbie calls it, is, of course, filled with dolls, miniaturized homemaker accessories, and other “princess gear.”

But, according to her market research, the problem is not just a matter of re-labeling or re-coloring boys’ building toys and marketing them to girls. Others have already tried this, and it doesn’t work. This is where we do have to acknowledge that boys and girls are inherently different at grade school age. Girls do gravitate more towards modeling social scenarios in play, they like to read, and they like academics. So, Debbie has brilliantly blended these existing “girl toy” concepts with a subtle variation on a “boys” building toy.

GoldieBlox – OFFICIAL BIG GAME XLVIII – Ad (Uncut Version)

The toys go like this: there is a storybook (a paper book, or, of course, a eBook!) which accompanies a small kit of mechanical components. Story protagonist Goldie and her friends encounter a challenge, and solve it together using technical concepts. But, in addition to emphasizing social values like friendship, cooperation and teamwork; the stories also teach mechanical engineering concepts like belt drives, pulleys, levers, wheels and axles. The reader solves the challenge alongside the book characters, using her mechanical kit. In the end, the story-and-reader team is now armed with the skills to build and invent other things with the same elements and concepts. And readers are encouraged to submit their creations on the web, in a social community, where this innovation is applauded and reinforced. Clever, no?

Debbie’s company story is a classic whirlwind business fairy tale: young entrepreneur invests every last penny she’s got into a prototype, and launches a Kickstarter campaign to fund production of one run. She makes some fun videos of girls re-purposing their pink “princess toys” into elaborate mechanical inventions, videos which go viral on the Internet. The tagline “disrupting the pink aisle,” along with images of girls not abandoning their princess gear, but augmenting it with pastel war paint, crash helmets, tool belts, safety goggles and splattered mud; storming into a toy store as a faux angry mob hollering war cries, these resonate.

People love the idea, the product is an immediate hit. Debbie hires staff, they develop more products, and bang, they are off and running. Recently, they won an Intuit QuickBooks competition for small businesses, which earned them a paid advertising spot during the Superbowl. Probably their biggest “problem” now will be managing growth and keeping up with demand. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for such a sweet idea and an obviously cool group of entrepreneurs. I bet the big toy companies are saying, “why didn’t we think of that!?!”

So, happy Engineers Week! Cheers to inventions and ideas of all kinds, and to inspiring the next generation of engineers, be they boys or girls. The world needs them!