The CEO of the Girl Scouts Wants to Turn Today's Cookie Sellers Into Tomorrow's Powerful Female Entrepreneurs
Sylvia Acevedo is used to being the only woman in the room. The engineer and rocket scientist spent the bulk of her career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, along with stints at Dell and IBM, but she never doubted herself in those rarefied settings. That’s something she credits to lessons learned at a very young age, taught by passionate leaders at the Girl Scouts. Now, as the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, she’s working to increase and expand STEM activities among members, improve outreach to minority communities and build strategic partnerships that will help set up Girl Scouts to become the entrepreneurs of the future, long after they’ve sold their last box of Samoas.
You joined the Girl Scouts when you were 7, and the organization clearly left a lasting impression. What felt so special about it at the time?
I grew up in rural New Mexico. Girls like me weren’t really getting into science and math. On a Girl Scouts camping trip, my troop leader saw me looking at the stars and explained constellations and systems. Before, I just saw twinkly lights. She later encouraged me to earn a badge in science, which required you to make a model rocket. It took me several tries before I got that rocket to launch, but it was so informative because it didn’t just teach me about trial and error; it taught me that I was good at science and, more important, that I liked it.
How did the organization teach you to harness that interest and talent?
I almost quit Girl Scouts because I thought my family couldn’t afford it, actually. We lived paycheck to paycheck, and I remember telling my troop leader that I was going to have to quit. She laughed and said, “Don’t worry; we’re going to sell cookies!” And that, as much as the science experiment, changed my life forever, because it taught me that I could create my own opportunity. It taught me about business plans, how you handle money, how to treat customers and how to break down goals into achievable steps. It’s the reason I decided in fourth grade that I’d go to Stanford University someday. It’s the reason I ended up working for NASA.
What do you think your life would have looked like otherwise?
I probably would have been the best manager at the local Walmart.
And instead you became a rocket scientist. Is it safe to assume that throughout your career, you weren’t exactly surrounded by a lot of other women?
I used to joke that everyone could always remember my name because I was “the one.” But yeah, even in my first job as a summer intern during college, I was a field engineer and they didn’t have a bathroom for me. I figured out where [on site] there was a women’s restroom and brought a bike so, if I had to go in an emergency, I could get there fast. After six weeks they finally got me my own porta potty that said “Hers.” That whole experience really taught me how to get my point across and figure out how to be heard. Getting ahead in the technology industry isn’t about being a straight-A student. So much is about networking, about showing a company how you can solve a problem.
How is the Girl Scouts teaching those lessons to kids today?
The great thing about our girls-only space is that you’re never a tagalong. The first step to learning is actually doing. Think about being in school -- a lot of times a girl can’t even get close to a computer or equipment. And if she does, and she doesn’t do the activity right the first time, it’s like, Oh, you’re no good at this. You don’t get another chance. But we work with our girls until they do. Recently, at one of our camps in Atlanta, a young girl was terrified of water. She had no interest in kayaking, but every day she saw her friends out on the water, and finally she worked up the nerve to try it. By the end of the week, she was the first one out there. As you do an activity more, no matter what it is, you gain confidence and courage to go forward.
You’re pushing the Girl Scouts toward more ambitious goals -- involving leadership, citizenship and entrepreneurship. But for a lot of Americans, the organization kind of begins and ends with Thin Mints. How do you change the perception?
We really are the hidden giant in women’s leadership, and we’re starting to tell that story more loudly, through both our cookie program and partner organizations that can help us bring our message into more communities. And it’s a big story. Half of the female elected officials in America, including two-thirds of female U.S. senators, were Girl Scouts, and more than half of women leaders in business. There’s just one female governor who wasn’t a Girl Scout. All three female secretaries of state -- different backgrounds, different parties, all Girl Scouts. And as far as entrepreneurs go, we want to better highlight those who started with us. Brit Morin, Tyra Banks. We over-index in Silicon Valley, which definitely has a big women’s problem, but of the women who are there, who persisted, so many are Girl Scouts.
What do today’s girls want more of from the Girl Scouts?
We have a lot of homeless troops -- the most famous one is in New York, Troop 6,000 -- and they especially want to know STEM and to sell cookies because they know those things create opportunities. A few years ago, we introduced Digital Cookie, which basically brings the cookie-selling experience online. It walks you through business goals and objectives, and lets girls reach a wider audience. I’ve had several girls come up to me [after their first experience selling cookies] and say, “I didn’t realize starting a business was this easy!” So we’re really setting up the next round of entrepreneurs.
Has it inspired a lot of homegrown businesses?
I just met a young woman who started a customized-sneaker business. And we have a more structured awards program for girls who create their own organizations. To earn the Gold Award -- the highest-level award -- you have to show that your project has sustainable impact beyond your time with the Girl Scouts. One girl’s project had her teaching coding in small rural towns in Mexico, and also teaching teachers so they could also teach their students. I mean, she’s not even out of high school!
How do these increased entrepreneurial interests shape programming moving forward?
We’re really focusing on expanding a lot of our STEM programming and providing it on a digital platform. Cybersecurity, lessons on blockchain technology. Right now, our world is being redesigned. It’s one thing to teach girls to code, but it’s another to teach them to use analytics and data to identify and solve a problem using code. If a company can’t find a resource it needs locally, it will find that talent outside the U.S. And that’s fine for some jobs, but if you think about our voting system, our financial systems, our personal data, you kind of want someone with a patriotic affiliation. These skills are fantastic for the girls’ careers, but they’re also going to be so necessary as America fights to remain competitive.
As members graduate from the system, how do you help them succeed and lead as adults?
We just announced a partnership with LinkedIn that we’re really excited about, because typically we hadn’t focused on keeping in direct contact with our members after they leave the program. But we’re going to be much more proactive and keep them involved via the Girl Scout Network on LinkedIn, where our alums can connect and enhance their career development. We’re also exploring initiatives with our partner organizations to support equal pay and promoting more women to C-suite positions. It’s definitely a process, but we’re a leadership organization, and we want to make sure that the companies we work with will provide viable leadership opportunities for our girls.