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Just in time for the holidays, a hot toy start-up is gaining traction for its building games, which expose girls to engineering. Forget ironing boards, pink tea sets and variations on becoming a princess. If company founder Debbie Sterling gets her way, more girls will embrace toys that instill problem solving skills at an early age. The holy grail: Encouraging more girls to pursue science-based careers.
"We just want girls to be able to use their brains a little more," said Sterling, founder of Oakland, Calif.-based GoldieBlox.
This week, the company launched the "Princess Machine," an online video that showcases three tough girls, rebelling against dolls and pink princesses. Using actual GoldieBlox toys, the girls (toy users) turn a home into a clever conveyor-belt maze. Starting with a turntable and music box, the trio launches a domino effect of moving balls, levers and pulleys. Part social commentary on what traditionally has been available in girls' toy aisles, the video showcases a pink mixing bowl, rolling pin, tea set, doll and pink boa. The video then subverts those objects for a message on why America isn't grooming enough female engineers.
The sassy lyrics — set to a re-purposed Beastie Boys song "Girls" — tell the rest of the story.
"We are all more than princess maids!" the song goes.
"Girls to build the spaceship,
Girls to code the new app,
Girls to grow up knowing
they can engineer that."
"We don't have a national shortage of princesses," CEO Sterling said in a recent video. "But we do have a national shortage of engineers."
(GoldieBlox and the Beastie Boys have since sued each other over the use of the song.)
What is GoldieBlox?
GoldieBlox is a series of interactive books, combined with construction toys starring Goldie. Her stories encourage girls to develop concepts and skills that are fundamental to engineering. While the book story unfolds, girls get to build what Goldie builds. The storytelling element taps into girls' strong verbal skills, while colorful construction toys — blocks, wheels, axles, cranks and washers — encourage confidence in spatial skills and construction.
In a spinning machine story, for example, Goldie is fascinated by her dog chasing his tail and a music box, in which a figurine rotates. Then by picking up the physical toy — which includes a peg board, spools and ribbons — girls eventually end up building a belt drive, an advanced concept used in cars.
The small business was launched last year, and their first toys were shipped this past March. The GoldieBlox line is available at retailers including Toys "R" Us, Books-A-Million, Amazon.com and smaller merchants. Toys range from $10 to $30 each, and are available in the U.S. and Canada. The company plans to expand into international sales next year.
Said a recent fan on the company's website, "As a female in the construction industry and a grandmother to two little girls, I LOVE your product line."
And that's precisely the point. While women have advanced in business, medicine and law, they trail in other science-related areas, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which focuses on entrepreneurship. Women account for less than 18 percent of total bachelor's degrees in computer sciences and engineering; under 28 percent of master's degrees in those two fields; and less than 22 percent of related doctorate degrees, according to national education statistics.
Sterling said toys can shape children's identities and ideas about career choices, especially around age 4. That's a critical time when youngsters start contemplating what girls and boys are supposed to be when they grow up. "We're changing that conversation," she said in a recent CNBC interview.
Sterling herself grew up in a small Rhode Island town. She didn't even know what engineering was until a high school math teacher suggested she pursue it as a major at Stanford University. "I was embarrassed because I didn't know what engineering was and I couldn't ask her," she said in a July interview with CNBC.
At Stanford, Sterling's mentors included famed inventor David Kelley — think the first Apple computer mouse and the stand-up toothpaste tube. She graduated with a unique bachelor's degree in engineering and product design. Curiosity led to the toy aisle and the bounty of chemistry and construction sets for boys. Her mission to disrupt the girls' toy aisle was launched.
Sterling, of course, isn't the first entrepreneur to try to crack the girls' market with construction-focused toys. Examples include LEGO Friends. That toy set, however, was met with some criticism for focusing more on the figurines' appearance than construction play.
"I definitely think there has been a push to try to get girls interested in science and math, areas that typically may not have seen an abundance of products" for girls, said Adrienne Appell, a trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association.
For kids ages 2 to 12, more boys (52 percent) play with toys and board games than girls (48 percent), according to the NPD Group, a consumer market research firm.
One toy expert who has been watching gender-based trends closely is Richard Gottlieb. About three years ago, his consultancy interviewed about 1,700 moms, who reported a 25 percent decline in girls playing with gender-neutral objects such as construction toys, cars and trucks. "The toy department (for girls) has become very pink and very princess," Gottlieb said.
He argues girls' toys broadly are stuck in a '50s time warp of sorts, and the toy industry subsequently is losing girls' interest. "Simply put, years of pushing pink and princesses has resulted in a generation of girls, 8 and over, that associates toys with childishness instead of childhood and with innocuousness instead of innocence," according to an article Gottlieb recently authored.
And that's a tough review for an industry that's trying to reverse overall toy sale declines. Annual U.S. toy sales were $20.47 billion for 2012, down 3.5 percent from $21.21 billion from a year earlier, according to the NPD Group.
GoldieBlox, meanwhile, an upstart of 13 employees, is working to shake up the toy industry — and girls' perceptions about their choices. The "Princess Machine" video has gone viral, tracking more than 3.5 million YouTube hits and counting. And the company is among four small-business finalists in a contest to win a 30-second spot in next year's Super Bowl.
"Engineering is such a boys club and that starts at an early age," GoldieBlox's Sterling said. "It's important we introduce a bunch of different options."
—By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee