The Skills to Build

When Debbie Sterling began studying mechanical engineering and product design in college, it was at a teacher’s suggestion.
The Skills to Build
At first, she was reluctant to pursue such a technical field, because she thought it wouldn’t allow her to express her creativity. But Sterling quickly found that engineering was perfect for creative types, because it requires “a skill set to build anything you could dream up in your head,” she says in her TED talk. “How empowering to be able to build whatever you want!”

And, yet, as a child she never was given erector sets and construction blocks to play with, toys that are a matter of course for young boys. Her toys came from “the pink aisle” in the toy store—all makeup and princesses. That inspired Sterling to create GoldieBlox, a story-based construction set for girls.

When she tried to pitch her business to toy manufacturers, she was told time and time again that GoldieBlox would never succeed—because girls don’t like science. So, in 2012, Sterling started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the capital to manufacture 5,000 units herself. She had hoped to raise US$150,000 in 30 days. By the time her campaign ended, she had raised more than $285,000—and received thousands of orders. Today, GoldieBlox is a popular franchise that’s working to “disrupt the pink aisle” by introducing young girls to technical fields. (If you haven’t seen Sterling’s April 2013 TED talk, it’s worth a watch: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEeTLopLkEo.)

I love Sterling’s story because it highlights trends now unfolding in business, where it takes more than just business, technical, or creative skills to get an idea off the ground. Somehow, all three need to come together.

In a special section in this issue, we take a look at how business schools are working to bring more people like Sterling into their programs—individuals who are skilled in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) but who need business skills to better translate innovative discoveries into market-ready solutions. For example, the authors of “Plotting a Course for STEM” make an impassioned case for why business schools need to become much more active in STEM education. We also share the paths that several schools have taken to better integrate STEM disciplines into their programs.

In this issue, we also look at a problem that business and STEM disciplines share: gender disparity. Sterling herself says that for a long time she felt as if she “didn’t fit in,” either in her male-dominated Stanford engineering courses or among the executives and investors in the toy industry. The authors of “Closing the Gender Gap” in this issue present data that show just how underrepresented women are at all levels in business schools. We also speak with Sondra Barbour, an executive at Lockheed Martin, who makes “top-100” lists for women in both business and STEM. She has this advice for women: Don’t be afraid to say “yes” to leadership roles.

For Sterling, saying “yes” to her own idea—especially when so many others said “no”—was the scariest part. Today, she couldn’t be happier about channeling her engineering skills and creativity into GoldieBlox. Sterling represents exactly why STEM and business make the perfect partners. Together, they really can build anything.