When Sylvia Acevedo enters a room, heads turn. She has that je ne sais quoi, that undefinable quality. Behind her omnipresent, ever chic eyeglasses, her smile radiates. But it is that air of confidence that this Las Cruces, New Mexico, native inspires that most stands out. While she might easily pass for your favorite stylish tia, this is a woman whose platinum resume skyrockets her to a whole different stratosphere.
Ms. Acevedo is a proven and serious, brass-tax executive with accomplishments to match. And her newest achievement punctuates it in bold and oversized font. In May, the interim tag that she carried for nearly a year, was removed and her permanent title now reads: CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA. It is an organization whose numbers now exceed 2.8 million girls and adult leaders.
On the surface, her history with the organization might seem to have that new-car smell, but Ms. Acevedo’s Girl Scout lineage goes back to age seven when an intuitively curious little girl, even then, was looking for challenges. But the first challenge for this precocious second-grader quickly got pushed to the back-burner. Not unlike many little girls of that day, she originally thought she wanted a cooking badge. A troop leader guided her in a different direction and urged her to instead look to the sky.
“I earned my science badge,” she recalled. “I learned that I could do it and that I liked it.” The badge was the reward for building a rocket that she successfully launched into the New Mexico sky. “After that, I had the confidence to take math and science classes, at a time when there were few Latinas---or any girls---in those classes.”
Her academic achievement at her hometown New Mexico State University and later at Stanford University, where she earned a graduate degree, did not go unnoticed. Her first job out of college landed her at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab, an almost unheard of plum of a job for a pioneering Latina. There, she more than demonstrated her engineering skills. Ms. Acevedo was part of the Voyager II team which executed an epic fly-by of Jupiter.
While having a hand in a historic solar system exploration might be enough to cause one to rest on their laurels that has not been the case for this woman. Ms. Acevedo has also held leadership positions at Apple, Autodesk, Dell and IBM. She also started her own company and later served under President Obama on his White House Commission for Educational Excellence for Hispanics. But her focus today is on making a great organization even greater.
“As a rocket scientist, I know my experience as a Girl Scout launched my love of science and math,” said the New York-based Ms. Acevedo. One of her goals as CEO of this worldwide organization is to create 21st century badges that focus on science, technology, electronics and math. One that she has in mind is a robotics badge.
Another goal is to spark a renewed interest in Girl Scouts among grade school Latinas. She would like to grow nationwide Latina participation beyond its current 11-13 percent levels. Along the border, some troops currently have more than 50 percent Latina participation in Scouts, but that is an anomaly. Her goals may ultimately fall short, but it might be hard to convince someone who’s helped engineer a Jupiter fly-by that it can’t be done. Already work is underway to boost membership which has slipped in recent years and not only among Latinas but across the board.
GSUSA now has a Spanish language website for young Latinas whose first language is Spanish. Its aim is to help them more easily learn about the organization. Removing barriers can only serve to teach the Girl Scout mission as Ms. Acevedo knows from personal experience. Her parents spoke “only Spanish in the home.”
But Scouts did not only benefit the seven-year-old Ms. Acevedo but also her mother and younger sister. Girl Scout leaders “helped her learn English,” and “they also supported her in enrolling in a citizenship class.” Her mother later went on to become a Scout leader whose troop included Ms. Acevedo’s developmentally disabled sibling.
The face of the country is undergoing a seismic demographic shift. In just a generation, the Latino population has surged pushing a number of states to the precipice of minority/majority status. Ms. Acevedo is mindful of this and has directed GSUSA into a proactive stance to take advantage of this transformation.
In Washington, D.C., GSUSA “offers a program open to all girls called CHICAS: Discovering Hispanic Heritage Patch Program.” It, says Ms. Acevedo, allows girls “to learn remedial Spanish, be introduced to the contributions of historic Hispanic or Latino figures, learn about Girl Scouting in Latin Countries, and discover how they can perform community service to help Latinos living in the U.S. or Latin America.”
No story on Girl Scouts can be considered complete without mention of the seasonal temptation of Girl Scout cookies. Each years “Girl Scouts sell about 200 million boxes of cookies,” said Ms. Acevedo. Making certain that no one is left out of this seasonal enjoyment, GSUSA now offers gluten-free Trios and Toffee-tastic. The top three sellers, however, remain Thin Mint, Samoas/Caramel deLites and Tagalongs/Peanut Butter Patties. “My favorite are Thin Mints,” said Ms. Acevedo.
The long term benefits of Girl Scouts are manifest, said Ms. Acevedo. The list of alumni can be found in sports, medicine, science and technology, the arts and more. One astonishing list of famous alumni can be found in Congress where more than half of the women now serving were once Scouts. Other famous Scouts also include Queen Elizabeth, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Walters, Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, Venus Williams, Natalie Morales and Taylor Swift.
And today, the person running this 105-year-old organization is a now grown but once little girl who once called a New Mexico border town home. “I do pinch myself,” said Ms. Acevedo.
How different her world may have turned out had she gone ahead with her plans to earn a cooking badge instead of the one her Scout leader thought might work out better for her. “It was Girl Scouts that gave me my first hands-on experience with science, when as an elementary school girl, I earned my science badge making model rockets.”
It is unclear just how many badges Ms. Acevedo earned as a Girl Scout. But the badge she wears now is that of CEO. She is, by any measure, the new sheriff in town.