Illustrations by Karl Frid
As a young Girl Scout, Sylvia Acevedo struggled to build a rocket for a merit badge. “I failed so many times I had to get another rocket kit,” she says. But she persevered, and the process of earning that badge, she says, “transformed me. Because suddenly science and math weren’t things that were outside of my capability. I could do them, and I could do them well.”
So well, in fact, that she became a rocket scientist—her first job out of college was writing algorithms for NASA’s Voyager 2 space probe. She then became one of the first Hispanic students to earn a graduate degree in engineering from Stanford University, and later an executive at tech companies such as Dell, Apple, and IBM.
In 2017, Sylvia Acevedo was named the chief executive of Girl Scouts of the USA, and her tenure so far has been defined by a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In the last three years, the 108-year-old organization has introduced more than 100 new badges in subject areas such as robotics, app development, and cybersecurity.
“People are trying to solve the STEM gap using the same curriculum that created it, which has been designed to interest boys,” she says. “We’re making sure girls have a curriculum that’s interesting to them.”
On keeping a legacy organization fresh…
“The world is being rewritten around technology, line by line, code by code, but the challenge is that a lot of girls and women weren’t part of that.
So we updated our program. That’s why you’ve seen 100-plus new badges. Over a million STEM badges were earned last year. We’re not the experts on everything—we partner with companies, or organizations, or subject-matter experts—but we’re the experts in how girls learn and lead, so we’re able to bring these programs to the girls in a much faster way.”
On her transition to the nonprofit world…
“There are some basic business skills I learned that have been incredibly useful here. I really understand the importance of metrics and project management, and also scale—and part of that is because of my systems background. I was helping the organization understand that we don’t just have an amazing cookie program; we have a scale of network that is really unrivaled, except maybe by the federal government.”
On building the workforce of the future…
“If you’re thinking about America and having a STEM workforce that can compete globally, look no further. Girl Scouts is developing that workforce pipeline. You don’t just learn a skill in Girl Scouts: You have to apply it.
One of the examples that has really blown me away was a Girl Scout in the agricultural fields in California. Tractors and combines are now controlled by the internet of things, and what she’s focusing on, now that she knows about cybersecurity through Girl Scouts, is what happens to the sustainability of our food supply when the internet of things is hacked, and tractors and combines can’t move. I love that!”
On racial inequality and social justice…
“Girl Scouts believes Black lives matter and recognizes that we all have a role to play in dismantling the systems that fuel racial inequities and injustice. As an organization, we are committed to deep and engaged learning for the long haul—because that is what is required to make sustained change.
We are providing the tools girls need to make effective change, including new civic engagement badges in Public Policy, Inside Government, and Finding Common Ground. Girl Scouts also offers resources through our nonpartisan G.I.R.L. Agenda initiative that encourages girls to drive positive social change in their communities and world.”
On what all leaders could learn from Girl Scouts…
“When I learned how to sell cookies, my troop leader said, “Never walk away from a sale until you’ve heard no three times.” As a young girl, that was so important to me, because when I began to find out what was behind the no, I could get to a yes.”