Why Entrepreneurs Need STEM
Girl Scout alum Debbie Sterling came up with the idea for her STEM-focused toy company for girls, GoldieBlox, when she was a student at Stanford. She realized starting the business would require not only the skills she learned getting her degree in mechanical engineering, but also the STEM skills she had learned as early on as high school.
Now, more than a decade into running her business, she believes that any startup—regardless of what kind of business it is—requires a strong STEM background. Here she delves into how having that foundation enabled her to turn her dream business into a reality.
“When you’re inventing a product, you don’t start with the first thing that pops in your head— you do a bunch of research with people so you can innovate and come up with something new,” Debbie explains.
She read everything she could get her hands on, and then spent a month on ethnographic research.
“I observed kids and families in toy stores, and I marketed myself as a babysitter so I could see how they played at home. I talked to pediatricians, teachers, parents, after-school educators, toy inventors,” she says. “I spent several months just doing this research, and I wouldn’t have thought to do that if I didn’t have that STEM background.”
“That process really led me to that ‘aha!’ moment and the prototype of the toy that I invented and brought to market.”
When she completed her research, Debbie started with sketches before moving on to rapid prototyping.
“I leveraged everything I learned from my STEM background to use common household objects—whether it was hot glue, cardboard, or foam core—to start prototyping the ideas quickly and inexpensively to put them in front of people to get feedback,” she says.
“Doing round after round helped me figure out how big the pieces should be, what shapes I wanted, and how they all fit together. My prototype was a construction toy, so I had to use a lot of geometry to make the system. You need to think about how a bunch of small pieces can fit together to build something big. I knew I wanted wheels and axles, and to create pullies and gears and pegboards for the axles to fit into. When you start pulling it together, you realize the length of the axles needs to match up to the holes in the pegboard—and that’s all math.”
“Once I started getting specific on the sizes of the pieces and how everything was going to work together, I needed to take those designs and put them into a computer model with computer-aided drawing. I had taken a class in college, but I found someone who could help me,” she says. “I used 3D printing for the next stage, which brings you closer to the exact designs you’re looking for.”
4. Patenting and Manufacturing
“Once I had my designs, I began the process of protecting and patenting these inventions. I worked with a patent attorney and started filing patents and trademarks,” she explains. “Then I worked with a manufacturer, and that’s when the engineering gets very complex and having that base learning gets very helpful.”
“When I started, I was working off of my life savings, and I was able to get to the place where my first prototype was ready for manufacturing. But I didn’t have enough money to invest in the types of tooling required to make all the products,” she explains, adding that she did a Kickstarter campaign and also started talking to investors.
“I found one that was very interested. He asked me to put together a financial model so [he could] see what kind of money [I needed and how I was going to be] spending the money. I had never built a financial model before, but this is where a background in math came into play,” she recalls.
She remembered learning about percentages and pivot tables in high school, which she drew from to forecast revenue, expenses, and how and when the company could be profitable. “I wouldn’t have been able to raise money or run the business without those skills.”
“I hired a consultant CFO and we did a lot of the loan application for my first bank loan together. The night before we were submitting the financials for the loan, and I found a typo in the spreadsheet that was off by about a million dollars, and I identified it and fixed it before the bank presentation,” she says. “I was proud of my math skills in that moment.”
We’ve rolled out a suite of discounts for lifetime members to women-founded brands, many of which were founded by alums who applied the skills they learned in Girl Scouts to entrepreneurial opportunities as adults. Debbie Sterling's company, GoldieBlox, is one of those brands. Learn more about this—and the other benefits of lifetime membership—now.