- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
- Girl Scouts CEO Sylvia Acevedo took the job last year after serving as interim chief executive.
- Acevedo has responded to a mission of jump-starting the relevancy of Girl Scouts by focusing on STEM – science, technology, engineering, math – programs.
- She was one of the first Hispanic students to get a master’s in engineering from Stanford, as well as one of very few female executives during the early days of Silicon Valley.
- She spent months working at NASA before enrolling in Stanford.
- She said Girl Scouts would double down on programs tailored to girls in response to Boy Scouts going co-ed.
Sylvia Acevedo is the CEO of the Girl Scouts. And she wants to see girls run the world.
“I really believe in giving everyone a fair shot, but if I learned something because I got to be one of the first, or figured something out, I wanted to make sure that there was an opportunity for others,” she told us for an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “Success! How I Did It.”
Acevedo’s life is a pattern of doing impressive things and then helping others do the same. She was one of the first Hispanic students to get a master’s in engineering from Stanford, and, later, she worked for the White House’s initiative for providing educational opportunities to Hispanics. And on top of that she’s an actual rocket scientist. Now she’s reinventing the Girl Scouts to focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math.
The Boy Scouts is becoming co-ed, but Acevedo says they’ll never compete with the opportunities the Girl Scouts offer.
Listen to the full episode here:
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- Bestselling author David Sedaris
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Transcript edited for clarity.
Sylvia Acevedo: What I know about Girl Scouts is we have a hundred years of girl expertise. We know how to teach girls important life skills. We know how to create women leaders. When we look at our life results of our alumni, you know, three-fourths of our female senators were Girl Scouts. All three female secretaries of state, Girl Scouts.
When I go to Silicon Valley, almost every female tech leader who was born in the US, she was a Girl Scout. Almost every female astronaut that’s gone into space is a Girl Scout. So we know what works. Especially right now in the time of American competitiveness, we know that girls are an untapped resource and especially in technology, we need to reach more girls with those skills so that they find that technology is an interesting area, but not just interesting. That they have the skills to make an impact in the technical space. And we find that in particular in terms of defense of America.
We have this huge skills gap and it’s absolutely paramount that we get more women who have the technical background to excel so that they can help keep America safe in terms of our electrical grid, our voting systems, our financial systems, cybersecurity. It’s absolutely crucial and we know that we can do that by getting girls interested in it through Girl Scouts.
Breaking into the tech boys’ club
Rich Feloni: There’s a lot of complex reasons for it, but when you were working in tech, did you see some of the reasons why there are just vastly more men working in technology?
Acevedo: I was one of the few in tech, and I’ll tell you a quick story.
In one of my first jobs at IBM, I noticed that the guys would always come and huddle with the male engineers on my floor, but never including me or any of the other women engineers, and they would say things. “OK, here’s kind of the agenda, here’s what the boss really wants to hear.” So it was, like, “Hey, you know, you’ve got all this inside information.” And I realized, “Wow, this is really different.” And I tried crashing the party a few times, and they closed up kind of quickly. I realized, “Wow, there is a lot of informal networking that really impacts your career.”
So I started to find out what it takes to get that next job, that next level, and so really taking away the barriers that were stopping me. For example, I speak English and Spanish fluently, and there was an opportunity to go into Latin America management for international and, I thought, you know, at the time I had the sales and marketing background, I had the technology background, and I went to talk to the hiring vice president and he said, “I can’t have you in that role. You’re a woman.” And I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Well, I wouldn’t feel like you’d be safe.” I said, “OK, so safety. That’s what you don’t feel comfortable about. OK.”
So on my own, I booked my own ticket, I went down to the country he thought was the least safe, met with people from the firm, came back, showed him all the information. I said, “Look, I went there and came back and I’m OK.” So he hired me and it’s a good thing he did, because I really led that team for record profits, but knowing that that was an issues, I started a group in Silicon Valley and I would have women who were interested in working in Latin America, so we started networking and creating out own network. I know it helped a friend of mine who was trying to get a job at Cisco and I met with her manager and I said, “Look, I’ve traveled all around Latin America. I’m OK. Just like any major city you travel to you’ve got to have precautions, but you can do this safely as well.” So she got hired and I have to say, she got hired before Cisco’s stock split quite a few times, so she was very grateful for that opportunity too.
Feloni: Yeah, so it was basically bursting through these artificial, silly barriers that were just put in your way?
Acevedo: Mm-hmm. And it’s important. I tried to make sure that there were other women that came with me as well. You know, I really believe in giving everyone a fair shot, but if I learned something because I got to be one of the first, or figured something out, I wanted to make sure that there was an opportunity for others as well.
Feloni: Yeah. It seems like your work, whether it’s bring STEM to Girl Scouts or your work with the White House, that it’s kind of drawing from your own personal experience and kind of finding ways to bring your experience to help other people. When did you realize you wanted to do that?
Acevedo: One of the things that’s kind of interesting is that my dad was in the military; he was in the Army. He was an officer and he got stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, and that’s where I was born. So I had all sorts of chachkies from Mount Rushmore. I was from this really special place, so there’s an element of patriotism that really runs deep within me. And I feel really fortunate. All my grandparents came from Mexico. My mom was born in Mexico, my dad was born in the US. And everybody wanted us to have a better life and I was incredibly fortunate.
I was able to be part of Head Start. I was part of Girl Scouts. These things changed my life, so I’ve had this amazing life, you know. Worked at the White House, the CEO of Girl Scouts, I was a technology executive, I was a rocket scientist. I mean, so amazing. And I know that there were some things that made a really big difference in my life, for example, Girl Scouts and also being able to read well and the importance of education. So when I was young, there were very few girls like me, and now one in four girls that are kids were like me. I want to make sure we reach all girls and I realize that what we have in Girl Scouts really makes a difference in your life, so every day, I think about that and I think about how it makes a difference in their lives, but how it makes a difference for the United States as well. I think it’s one of the most patriotic things that we’re doing right now is we’re preparing girls to be not only relevant, but prepared to be able to really influence the future in the 21st century.
Making Girl Scouts relevant today
- Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images
Feloni: So what’s the role of the Girl Scouts in 2018?
Acevedo: You know, what’s so great about Girl Scouts is, I like to say, we’re a hundred-plus-year-old organization and we’ve got one hand rooted firmly in tradition, right? But the other hand is reaching out to the future as well. We teach girls leadership and life skills. And yes, we have a huge emphasis on the outdoors. But we recognize that every girl now has a mobile device in her hands and we want her not just to be a user of that device, but we want her to be the inventor, the creator, the designer, the entrepreneur, the lawyer, the marketer, around that. And so what we’ve started to do is really give girls those important skills. So as the world is being redesigned around data, they’ve got the skillset to really be part of creating our future.
Feloni: How did you get into the Girl Scouts in the first place as a kid?
Acevedo: Oh, that’s a really fun story. Actually, my family had moved in the middle of a school year, and I didn’t like the new school and I just had a hard time fitting in and I would race home for lunch every day, ’cause I didn’t want to even eat in the cafeteria there. And one day when I was racing home, this girl was following me, and I was like, “I know you don’t live in the neighborhood,” but she was catching up with me and she caught up with me in front of my house and she was a wearing a brown dress and a little beanie cap and she said, “You know, I want to invite you to this meeting.” And I was like, “Uh-huh, I don’t want to go.” She goes, “Well, go ask your mom.” I asked my mom and my mom said yes; she just wanted to know where I was going to be. And when I got to the meeting, it was so well organized – there were refreshments and the girls were doing really cool things, and I thought, “I want to do that.”
And so at that point, I really got involved in Girl Scouts, and my mom saw how excited I got about it and then I started having a group of friends, right? So I stopped coming home for lunch because I had people I could have lunch with and you know, it taught me all these great skills. So I’m grateful to that young girl, Sylvia Black, who invited me to join Girl Scouts, because it really did change my life.
Feloni: One of your tasks, then, will be making sure that those introductions can happen more around the country?
Acevedo: Absolutely. And introduce it also to segments of the population that may not have a connection to Girl Scouts, because maybe no one in their family was part of Girl Scouts or you know, it’s something that they may have misperceptions about it. So we’re really trying to reach all sorts of segments. Let me just give you a great example of that. I was in California in the agricultural area. So this isn’t Silicon Valley, this isn’t Los Angeles, this is in the AG fields, right? And I was talking to a Girl Scout and she was telling me that she was working on her Gold award and the Gold award is our highest award and you have to show that you make a sustainable difference in the world. And I asked her what her project was about. And she said, “You know, since Girl Scouts is focused on cybersecurity and I’ve noticed that in our family farm, all the tractors and combines are all controlled by the Internet of Things.”
And so her Gold award project is the sustainability of our food supply if the Internet of Things gets hacked. Wow, OK. Now talk about scale and reach of our Girl Scouts, right? So for me, when she told me that story, I was just so amazed, but it was also such validation of our reach and scale of our movement. So there are girls in all sorts of parts of America that are going to have access to cybersecurity, to robotics, to thinking like a programmer, to understanding how to use their technology devices in a way of not just being the user but the creators and the inventors. Recently I met a young woman who came up to me here in New York and she said she was going to college here. And she told me, “I did all the robotics and STEM that Girl Scouts offered.” I said, “That’s great – what kind of engineer are you?” She looked at me and she was like, “I’m not going to be an engineer.” She said, “I am studying fashion. I want to create the first line of branded wearables.” Wow. So to me that is so fantastic about Girl Scouts. That it has that reach that you don’t know if different of the US and how are they going to take that information and synthesize it in a way that’s relevant and meaningful to them. We want to make sure rural girls, suburban girls, urban girls, all girls get the opportunity, because it just doesn’t help them. They do the park cleanups. In some cases they create parks for their Gold award projects. They make sure that there are stop signs in dangerous areas. They are making sure that they are helping animals in the animal shelters. They’re knitting blankets for homeless. You know, they do all these things. Girl Scouts are this amazing impact for good in communities, so we know that yes, it enriches girls’ lives, but it really does enrich the communities and that makes America stronger as well.
Feloni: And how did the Girl Scouts factor into your own childhood?
Acevedo: Girl Scouts was really the inflection point in my life. But I didn’t realize it until about 12 years ago, somebody was at Stanford University doing some research and they were determining that very few people that were Hispanic, born in the US, had ever gotten their graduate engineering degree at Stanford. And I was one of the few and first male or female Hispanics who have ever gotten a graduate engineering degree from Stanford. So she called me and so she started asking, “You know, it’s interesting, because at that time Stanford really wasn’t actively recruiting in your part of the country,” which is Southern New Mexico. And so she’s like, “How did you, one, know about Stanford and, two, you know you were prepared. You had the academic background to not only get into Stanford, but to also excel.” And the more she kept asking me, you know, “Were your parents rich ranchers or were they college professors?” None of that. We lived near poverty, struggling paycheck to paycheck. And I realized that I first really got interested in science when I was at Girl Scout camp out and I was looking at the stars and my troop leader noticed that and she showed me constellations and I thought, “Wow, I didn’t know. I thought they were just twinkly lights up there.” I didn’t know there was the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.
So she remembered that and later on when we were earning badges, she encouraged me to earn my Science Badge. And I did that buy making Estes rockets. At first, I wasn’t successful, but I kept at it and then I realized that I really liked it and then I was good at it, so I started taking science and math electives in school and then I realized that I could be an engineer and because of the confidence I had at Girl Scouts, yes I could do the science and math and I also could be confident in terms of doing something that there weren’t a lot of girls doing at the time. That led me to become an engineer and that led me to kind of get a sort of kismet. My first job out of college was as a rocket scientist at Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, California, working for NASA and I got to work on the Voyager II mission, which at the time was passing by Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa, so it was such an exciting time to be doing that. So I really credit Girl Scouts for being that inflection point in my life and I’m so grateful someone was doing this history project at Stanford, because I don’t think I would’ve made that connection, but once I did, I realized that that was true. But it wasn’t just true for me, it’s true of tens of millions of women whose lives were dramatically impacted and bettered because of Girl Scouts.
Feloni: Yeah, and what was it like when you were working at NASA?
Acevedo: You know, again, there weren’t very many women at all there. I really enjoyed it. I was really serious in math and physics, but it was such an exciting time. There were some images coming back from Jupiter and its moons that we had never seen before, right? So that was such an exciting time to be there. One of the things, though, after the Voyager II had gone by Jupiter, I realized that it was going to take years before it went to the next planet and the next project I was on was going to take decades. So at that point, I realized, “OK, this was so great,” but then I wanted to go at get my master’s at Stanford and I had the background and the engineering and the mathematics expertise and I ended up having a career in Silicon Valley.
Becoming a better leader
Feloni: So you took on the CEO role at Girl Scouts after your predecessor, who faced criticism for being unable to reverse a trend of declining membership and some ways where she was alleged to have treated employees poorly. What was it like becoming a leader in a context of some controversy?
Acevedo: You know, I came in with one mantra, which is a Girl Scouts mantra: Always leave your campground better than you found it. So from the very beginning, that’s what I focused on. Always leave your campground better than you found it.
Feloni: And how long since taking the job did you think that you were able to work your vision into the organization?
Acevedo: I think when people showed me the first roll out for some of our badges and it was going to be released in 2025, I remember I held up my iPhone at the time and I said, “This is nine years and you’re basically saying in another decade we’re rolling out these badges? They will be completely irrelevant.” And I said, “We have to compress the time. We don’t necessarily have to have that technical expertise, we can partner with people who have the technology expertise and stay current on that, but we will provide our Girl Scouts insights, making sure that it’s fun, builds friendship, which is what they want,”
Feloni: So sounds like an element of this, then, was getting the organization moving faster?
Acevedo: Yes, you know, the concept of time to market, speed to market is very, very important. Also coding was a very crowded space, and with Girl Scouts, we offer girls life skills and we wanted to make sure that what they were getting from Girl Scouts really prepared them for what was going on now, but also in very many different ways. Like how is technology infused in the outdoors? So when you’re going and you’re doing archery, we won’t get away from the great outdoors, right, so you’re doing archery, but this time we’re going to teach you that in addition to how do you hit the target, but there’s velocity, there’s an impact, there’s a trajectory. So infuse it in a way that’s still fun, but you’re learning something meaningful as well. Yes, we’ll have great water play and activities there, aquatics, but we’re also going to introduce underwater robotics. There’s just all these ways that we wanted to infuse STEM that is central to our mission, but is also fun for girls.
Feloni: When you were talking about your time in technology, you were talking about the importance of having these networks, of having women network with each other. Is that what you’re tapping into here with Girl Scouts? Of having girls support girls, women support women?
Acevedo: Yes, that’s a really important aspect of that network. You really learn. We have a song for that, the importance of girls’ friendship, which is make a new friend. One is silver, the other is gold. You know, so you keep your friends. So we want to make sure that friendship is very important for girls. As we’re getting older, one of the things we realize is that we hadn’t stayed in touch with our alumni, and so we hadn’t created an alumni network and we’re very much focused on that. One of our partnerships with LinkedIn is to have women who were Girl Scouts, to put that on their LinkedIn profile. So that you can say, “You know, I was a Girl Scout.” Last week I was speaking in Detroit at the In forum, it’s a large leadership organization for women and I asked how many women were Girl Scouts. Ninety percent of those women business leaders in Detroit were Girl Scouts. Really impactful. So I’ve asked them, that’s an amazing network there, make sure that you put it in your LinkedIn profile, but also as you’re trying to make friends at work, you could also say, “Hey, were you a Girl Scout?” And you have an immediate bond. You might even start breaking out in camp songs.
Feloni: What’s it like when you meet a Girl Scouts member?
Acevedo: I’m just so excited because you see all that potential. You see that exuberance, that excitement. And you know, what I love too is in Girl Scouts, we really foster girl’s leadership, so I’ve had girls come up to me and explain why we need to add additional badges, why we need to be doing something different. We’re talking about what an impact Girl Scouts has in their own life. Last week I was really struck when we were making airplanes in one of these exercises with girls and it was really a fun activity, that afterwards, this girl came up to me and she said, “I believe in you, and because I believe in you, I believe in me.” And I just really love that impact that Girl Scouts has on so many girls that maybe don’t see the role models in the games that they’re playing, in the television shows that they’re watching, but at Girl Scouts, they’re seeing those women leaders. They’re able to actually drive the activities so that they learn about project management at a very young age. That’s one of the interesting things, when I talk to women alums and they say, “You know, when I think about Girl Scouts, I think it was more than selling cookies. It was really the project management skills that I learned. You come into a meeting and you immediately say, ‘OK, what are we trying to accomplish? What supplies do we need? Who else needs to be involved? Who’s doing what?'” And those are things that you learn very early on in Girl Scouts, but that is such a critical and important life skill.
Feloni: And I read something, too, that you have a CEO patch?
Acevedo: The CEO patch tells the story, my Girl Scouts story. So it has images of stars, and it also has an image of Jupiter and because of the Voyager II, it’s a got a rocket ship CEO and it’s also got an atom, and in the middle of the atom, its nucleus is Girl Scout Trefoil, which is really meaningful to me. And because I still am a nerd, it has my three favorite math symbols, which are summation, because when I learned about selling cookies and how they could make your dreams come true, I loved totaling up the money and was I meeting my goal, and number of cookies, so summation just makes me feel real good whenever I total up numbers.
Pi is homage to my mom. I was making a craft and I needed a certain material around a round object and my mom said, “You don’t have a pattern – how are you doing to determine how much material?” And I said, “Mom, it’s easy. It’s 2 Pi R for the circumference.” And she said, “I’m glad you like math, Mija.” And then finally, my other math symbol is infinity, and that’s because Girl Scouts represents infinite potential. When I think about my life, you know, I came from a very small town and I’ve had this amazing career, and I know it’s because of Girl Scouts, so when I give that patch to girls, I said, “This is my dream, but think of this as a seed for your dream. What is your dream?” And Girl Scouts gives you those skills to make those dreams come true.
Feloni: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Acevedo: You know, one of the biggest ones is it’s really about me and really learning that the higher up you go, the more you have to adapt. So the skills that get you to a certain level don’t get you to the next level. And when you have really good skills, like really great analytical skills. I mean, I was a rocket scientist, so that’s one of my superpowers, but at some point, that doesn’t get you to the next level and having to learn about people skills, having to learn more leadership skills, having to learn how to speak to influence and persuade, having to learn about organizational dynamics, you know, you’ve gotta do that at that next level. I think at first I had gotten by, by an over-reliance of a certain skill, but then when I realized I just wasn’t moving ahead, I could blame others or I could look within and I think at first it was a little easier to blame others. You know, “They don’t want to hire a female,” or whatever. But then I started looking like, “Well, what skills do you need at that next level?” And once I did, I realized, it’s time to work on those skills that you need at that next level, when you get to those skills, and you’re practiced and you’re good enough, it’s amazing. More opportunities come to you.
Feloni: How do you personally define success?
Acevedo: Fulfillment. Do I feel fulfilled? Do I feel like I have really made an impact? I don’t equate it in terms of the dollars or anything like, but do I feel like I’ve made a difference, and that’s how I define success.
Feloni: Is there a piece of advice that you most often give Girl Scouts?
Acevedo: Oh, there are two pieces of advice. One of them is the best business advice I got as a Girl Scout, was my troop leader told me you could never leave the site of a sale without hearing “no” three times. And you know, when you first start selling cookies, you sell to your family and your friends and people at church, so every of course everyone says yes, right? But then to meet my goals, I had to sell to somebody who I didn’t know very well, like a neighbor and the first neighbor that I went to that I didn’t know very well, she told me no. And I remember standing there thinking, “Troop Leader Mrs. Provine told me I couldn’t leave until I heard three nos.” So I looked around her and asked, you know, “Is there anybody else there?” And she’s like, “no,” and at this point she’s looking for me to skedaddle, right? And I said, “Well, is there anybody’s day you would make if you bought some Girl Scout cookies?” And at that point, she bought one box. Most likely to get rid of me, but it was so important. That was a really invaluable skill. And I’m real excited, because I was able to share that at the Solar Prep School in Dallas and they implemented that technique and in one year they went from selling 15,000 boxes of cookies to 35,000 boxes.
Feloni: Oh, wow – it really worked.
Acevedo: It really worked. And I’ll tell you, in my career, I have a lot of bosses that probably hated my troop leader, because I wouldn’t hear the “no” and I’d keep coming back. How do I turn the no into a yes? So it made me a great salesperson, right? But it also helped advance me in my career, just like when I mentioned when my boss told me no about going to Latin America. I needed to find what was it that was stopping me. Oh, he thought it was unsafe. OK, let me turn that into a yes. So that was a really invaluable piece of advice. And the other piece of advice I give girls is the first person you have to convince about anything is yourself. Because once you believe you can do it, no one can stop you. But you yourself have to believe that first.
Feloni: Well, thank you very much, Sylvia.
Acevedo: I really enjoyed it – thank you very much.