There are moments that Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, just can't forget.
There was the time a college counselor at her high school in Las Cruces, New Mexico, scoffed at Acevedo's desire to study engineering. "Girls like you don't go to college," she recalls the counselor saying, in a reference to her Mexican ethnicity.
And there was the time when Acevedo won a competitive four-year scholarship to study engineering, but the male judges were so incredulous of her abilities, they insisted on interviewing her personally. Acevedo remembers one of the judges saying she represented change, and "change for the sake of change is not progress."
— Girl Scouts (@girlscouts) November 6, 2017
These experiences might have deterred Acevedo from going on to become one of the first female Hispanic rocket scientists in the country, were it not for the Girl Scouts. Years before the college counselor and the scholarship judge undermined and mocked Acevedo's potential, she'd already discovered her aptitude for science — along with her confidence — thanks to the Girl Scouts.
"I always had the possibility of success," she says, "but because of the inflection point of Girl Scouts in my life, it made the success a probability."
Now, Acevedo is one of the most influential public figures urging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. She sat on the Girl Scouts board for years and officially became the organization's president earlier this year, after holding the position on an interim basis.
Last week, she took center stage at Dreamforce, the annual software conference hosted by Salesforce, and made an incredible pitch: Help Girl Scouts raise $70 million so that it can move more than 2.5 million girls into the STEM pipeline by 2025.
Though the initiative reflects the long-term shift toward a STEM economy, it also seems like an ambitious gambit to increase Girl Scouts membership, which dipped in recent years and stands at 1.8 million girls and 800,000 adults. Fewer volunteers and families increasingly pressed for time and money have played a part in the membership downturn.
Drawing in new Girl Scouts is even more urgent given the Boy Scouts' recent decision to bring girls into its ranks. So the hyper focus on STEM isn't just a natural instinct for Acevedo; it's also a savvy move to make the Girl Scouts stand out — not only from the Boy Scouts but from the narrative that all Girl Scouts does is sell cookies. That hasn't been the case since the organization's founding, but Acevedo knows that cookie sales are how most people encounter Girl Scouts.
— Jonathan Cannon (@JCannonHD) November 12, 2017
Rob Acker, CEO of Salesforce.org, the software company's nonprofit arm, has noticed the Girl Scouts' increased use of digital technology to reach and engage girls, volunteers, and alumni. (Girl Scouts pays to use Salesforce software.) He's confident that the organization can both expose girls to STEM skills and increase their confidence in those fields.
"There is no better role model to inspire and provide hope for girls across the country than Sylvia," Acker said in an email. "Because of her background and unique vantage point, she recognizes the jobs of the future and the need to provide girls with the skills necessary to succeed in this new world, which is something we’re very focused on at Salesforce.org."
The so-called tech pipeline is a controversial subject in Silicon Valley. Some say there are plenty of qualified women to hire, but they face rampant subtle and explicit bias in recruiting and retention. Others look at the number of girls and women taking Advanced Placement and college STEM courses and argue it's just not enough to meet demand or lead to improved workplace diversity. The more likely explanation is that both factors account for tech's lack of diversity.
— Girl Scouts (@girlscouts) November 10, 2017
But Acevedo believes Girl Scouts is uniquely positioned to help its young charges develop the resilience and leadership and problem-solving skills to succeed in the male-dominated industry.
When Acevedo imagines the future of STEM, she sees millions of tech-literate girls and women working to make the world a better place, from "healing" the ocean to curing cancer to improving cybersecurity.
"Things are going to happen that we never imagined," she says.
That sense of wonder has marked Acevedo's life and career. Decades after her first Girl Scouts campout at Apodaca Park in Las Cruces, you can still hear the thrill in her voice as she describes the experience. She could ride her bike to the campout, so she decided to earn her bicycling badge for the occasion, which meant learning how to change a tire and memorizing traffic signals.
The one-night event marked the first time she slept in a tent, ate S'mores, and felt awestruck by the sky's constellations — or what she she describes as "diamonds on black velvet."
"I remember just, like, being mesmerized by the experience. How much more fun could I have?"
"I remember just, like, being mesmerized by the experience," she says. "How much more fun could I have?"
Acevedo's troop leader noticed her intrigue and shared the names of the constellations, including the Big and Little Dipper. If Acevedo were a superhero, this moment would mark the beginning of her origin story: girl marvels at universe, and though she's first reluctant to explore her superpower (engineering) because it's not what all the other girls are doing, she's encouraged by an elder (the troop leader who encouraged her to pursue a science badge) and never looks back.
Acevedo went on to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she developed algorithms, and separately, analyzed data from the Voyager's flyby of Jupiter. She ultimately spent much of her career on the marketing and business side of tech in roles at IBM, Apple, and Dell.
Now, everywhere she looks in Girl Scouts programming, there's a STEM tie-in. Pools have underwater robotics activities. Girls who take up archery will also learn how to calculate arc, velocity, and trajectory.
The group's badges increasingly reflect the STEM focus as well. The Girl Scouts introduced 23 STEM and outdoor badges this year. Cybersecurity and space science badges will roll out over the next two years. The $70 million pledge includes plans to build regional STEM centers of excellence across the country.
"Girls' imagination and potential will be unleashed," Acevedo says.
— Girl Scouts (@girlscouts) November 13, 2017
Anika, a 17-year-old from from Cupertino, California, is one of those girls. (Girl Scouts doesn't disclose members' last names for safety reasons.) When she was a Brownie, boxes with different science projects would arrive for her troop. That fostered her interest in STEM. So did entering into a First Lego League competition with her troop, and later, meeting with Silicon Valley executives as a Girl Scout.
Anika was at Dreamforce when Acevedo made a surprise visit to more than a dozen Girl Scouts learning to code. They gathered around her, visibly awed by her celebrity.
Acevedo handed out her coveted "CEO patch," which features symbols and images that sum up her life experience: Sigma because she loves numbers, Infinity to honor infinite potential, and Jupiter, the subject of her work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But Acevedo didn't just explain all of this to the scouts. Instead, she quizzed them. Hands shot up in the air, and the girls eagerly identified Sigma, Infinity, and Jupiter.
— Girl Scouts (@girlscouts) November 8, 2017
"Before I met her, I knew the basic information," Anika says about Acevedo's background. "But to see this patch and see an actual role model who’s had a career in [STEM] despite many obstacles ... She's taking her time to make an impact on future generations of girls. It enforced my determination to pursue a career in STEM."
That's exactly what Acevedo wants. Despite a lifetime of personal success, she's not content unless she's able to "give a hand back" to help another girl or woman succeed — a core Girl Scouts philosophy.
"We just don’t want her to learn a skill — she has to do something to improve the world with it," Acevedo says. "That’s what being a Girl Scout is all about."
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