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.”
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.
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