More design thinking, fewer pink aisles
The small business GoldieBlox can be traced to breakfast. Sterling had joined her friends in San Francisco for a gathering called "idea brunch." Instead of a book club, women eat and pitch business concepts. (Yes, this is what goes down on a Silicon Valley weekend.)
Sterling and her friends reflected on the slim ranks of female engineers. 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 under 22 percent of related doctorate degrees, according to national education statistics.
The brunch conversation shifted to their childhood and toys. Some of the women grew up with dolls, others Lincoln Logs. Curious, Sterling cruised a toy store aisle for girls. There were ironing boards, cupcake-making contraptions and an explosion of pink.
"There was nothing for girls that used their brains. The boys section was full of chemistry kits," Sterling said. And decidedly blue. "I knew there was a huge gap in the marketplace."
Before diving head-first into developing a toy prototype, she reflected on her Stanford University training. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering and product design. Stanford's unique combination of course work later led to the d.school, founded by inventor Kelley—who was Sterling's mentor. In college, she had absorbed lessons about innovation, entrepreneurship and so-called design thinking, which fuses human behavior with design.
The Steve Jobs connection
Kelley argues that we collectively need to remove the fear and uncomfortable quality associated with creativity—too often considered the domain of a select few. We shouldn't divide the world into "creative" and "noncreative," he said in a talk at TED last year. Let people realize they are naturally creative, argues Kelley, a longtime friend and colleague of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Hoping to tap into her own creativity, Sterling hunkered down in research, namely watching children play. She quickly discovered girls broadly love to read. Boys, in contrast, build things.
Sterling observed a typical child's playroom that features books on one side, construction toys on the other. "Why are they separate?" she asked. The idea for Goldie was born.
(Read more: The return of the opportunity entrepreneur)