GoldieBlox, gone to the dark side or well played?

You got to give Debbie Sterling credit. She has brought a lot of attention to her startup, GoldieBlox.

But it’s been a rocky journey. In two days, Sterling has turned from gender hero to Silicon Valley villain.

My response: So what.

The company has received positive press for creating and targeting the girl market with toys that use science, math and engineering skills. With the spotlight on how few women are in engineering, GoldieBlox offers a vague hope that 8-year-old girls today won’t be AWOL in the STEM fields in 20 years.

But now, Sterling is getting trashed. She has been accused of cynicism and outright theft for allegedly lifting the song “Girls” from the rock group Beastie Boys and replacing their adolescent girl-craze lyrics with a pro-girl anthem in order to sell her toys. Cold.

Oh, and then when the Beastie Boys inquired about the commercial use of their creative work, GoldieBlox sued them, as Heather Somerville wrote in the Mercury News. Bringing in the lawyers is never a make-nice move.

Here’s the problem: As an entrepreneur, Sterling needs to sell products. As a woman entrepreneur, she works in a world where the stereotype of a woman is a nice person who defers to others and works for the communal benefit. As Sheryl Sandberg described in “Lean In,” deference can work for women but mostly hobbles them.

Becoming aggro in negotiations like the stereotype of a man doesn’t work either.

But we’re trapped in our stereotypes and one way out is to break a few eggs.

GoldieBlox, Sterling’s Oakland-based company, could easily be overlooked as just another do-good effort to create products for the tough girl toy market.

And so she got some attention. As her lawsuit says,

GoldieBloxcreated its parody video specifically to comment on the Beastie Boys song, and to further the company’s goal to break down gender stereotypes and to encourage young girls to engage in activities that challenge their intellect, particularly in the fields of science, technology,engineering and math.

I wonder if we have a double standard. Would commentators be less critical of Sterling if she was a man? Likewise, would I be more critical of Sterling if she was a young male entrepreneur riffing off of someone’s intellectual property to sell his app?

Felix Salmon in Reuters slaps Sterling for following what he sees as Silicon Valley cynical playbook of being disruptive for disruptive’s sake:

GoldieBlox neither sought nor received permission to create these videos: it never licensed the music it used from the artists who wrote it. That wouldn’t be the Silicon Valley way. First you make your own rules — and then, if anybody tries to slap you down, you don’t apologize, you fight for your right to parody.

But  in a society that values free speech, we do fight for our right to parody.

Let the lawyers work out whether this is fair use of the Beastie Boys’ work or intellectual property theft.

For Sterling, the disruptive playbook is working and I say keep at it.

To witness Goldieblox’s rapid hero-to-villain transformation in Internet time, check out the Storify by George Kelly, the online coordinator at the Contra Costa Times.

Photo at top: Beastie Boys members Adam Yauch “MCA,” center, Adam Horovitz “Adrock,” left, and Mike Diamond “Mike D,” reflected in a mirror, pose for a photograph in Toronto in 2006. Yauch died last year. (The Canadian Press/Associated Press)

Michelle Quinn Michelle Quinn (158 Posts)

Michelle Quinn is a Business Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. Prior to her current role, she was the Silicon Valley correspondent at Politico covering tech policy and politics. She has also covered the tech industry at the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. She was a blogger for the New York Times.