In This Issue
Summer Bridge: A Vision for the Future of America’s Infrastructure
June 15, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 2
The articles in this issue, by academic and industry experts, focus on what’s needed to prepare US infrastructure systems for the coming decades.

An interview with… Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA

Friday, June 15, 2018

Author: Sylvia Acevedo

RON LATANISION (RML): We are very happy to talk with you today, Sylvia. I think you are an inspiration to a lot of people and especially to young women given the work you do on their behalf with the Girl Scouts. I’d like to begin with some of your background. I understand you have a BS in industrial engineering from New Mexico State and a master’s in systems engineering from Stanford. And you practiced as an engineer. Is that correct?

SYLVIA ACEVEDO: Yes, I even had my PE license for a while.

RML: That’s wonderful! Tell us a little about what you’ve done in terms of your engineering experiences.

MS. ACEVEDO: I was really fortunate to have had a work-study program through college at Sandia Labs, so I got hands-on experience in the field in human factor testing. That was fantastic. Then my first job out of college was working at the Jet Propulsion Labs as a rocket scientist. I joined at an opportune time, right when the Voyager II was doing a flyby of Jupiter and its moons, so I got to analyze reams and reams and reams of data.

Photo of Sylvia Avecedo

In addition to that, I worked on the Parker Solar Probe Missions, where I did some complex algorithm analysis of the payloads of test equipment versus how it would impact with gravity, with radiation, with all sorts of things.

Then I worked in Silicon Valley as a facilities engineer. That was really fantastic. I got to do a state-of-the-art building for IBM, a 765,000 square foot plenum clean room. I still remember that, and I can probably tell you where every outlet was. It became the showcase for IBM in terms of manufacturing. Besides high-end disc storage there, IBM was trying to sell more of its computers for the fast-growing technology industry, so it needed people who were comfortable with the technology and with engineers, and able to talk to engineers—who are now the decision makers in Silicon Valley. I was selected to join their marketing and sales team, using my technology background.

Then I saw how other people, especially men, were being groomed and I realized that there weren’t people grooming me. So I went out of my way to figure out what were the skills I needed to move up in my career. I had sales experience, and I knew I needed product market-ing and P&L experience, so I began developing my career in the technology field along that line. I then created opportunities to develop as an executive and worked at a variety of companies, like Apple, Autodesk, and then I was recruited to work at Dell to launch its server business. That was a very exciting opportunity.

After that I got the startup bug, partly due to my Girl Scouts cookie program skills of entrepreneurship. I got my opportunity to start, with three other people, a startup called REBA Technology, which we ended up selling and having a successful exit. Because of the successful exit I had some time and opportunity to think about what’s next.

I could have jumped right back into technology, but I saw the demographic shift and that I had the skills and capability of understanding the analytics, so I became involved in education, creating mobilization campaigns that got families much more involved. And tying the impact of improved educational attainment to workforce development.

The educational impact of this was noticed and I was selected to be on the Presidential Initiative for Hispanic Educational Excellence; I was chair of the Early Childhood Committee.

To scale the impact, I decided to take some time to write what I knew, and I wrote a curriculum of family engagement, mostly directed at English language -learners or those who are new to the US educational system, from pre-K to 12th grade, through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Everything I did was with a systems approach. I had the analytical capability but I also had the systems thinking. I’m always thinking, How does this scale? Educators are really great one-on-one and one-on-a-few—which is the best way to learn, frankly; they are doing what they are supposed to do—but sometimes with demographic changes the scale overwhelms them.

I professionally trained in scale and analytics, so I was able to create solutions that scaled. For example, a quarter of a million books were successfully distributed across the country. I think we did the largest single-day book giveaway in California’s history—60,000 books. That’s the size of a bookstore. Most people were overwhelmed by that number, but as a systems person and a process person, I knew how to break it down so that we could easily deliver those books in one day. Every time somebody came in we handed them a bookbag with the appropriate age-level book.

I took the same approach with vision, and with -dental. I found out that 20 percent of the kids in a Title I school didn’t have glasses even though they needed them, and that this need was overwhelming the capabilities of the local nonprofits. If you can’t see you can’t learn. I -created a consortium and created another way of doing that and in just a couple of years, 11,000 kids got glasses that normally wouldn’t have had them.

RML: You mentioned being part of a presidential initiative. When was that? During the Obama years?

MS. ACEVEDO: Yes. I was chair of the Early Childhood Subcommittee. I was a Head Start baby and I knew how important Head Start was for me. Taking a systemic approach, we realized that, while we had a lot of great organizations and people focused on making a difference, we needed to make sure there were data and analytics. We put data and analytics in research reports so the information was available—especially the -demographics—to funders.

We also got a policy changed. Before our work, if you were running a Head Start or other early childhood program, you could not use federal funds to teach children in their native language. You immediately had to put them in English immersion, and couldn’t bridge to a child’s native language using the child’s native skills. If you think about the global market, where being bi-lingual is a competitive advantage, we were taking off the table one of the competitive advantages of our nation’s workforce being bilingual. So we were able to get that policy changed.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Are you still on that commission?

MS. ACEVEDO: No, and I wouldn’t have time for it now, being CEO of the Girl Scouts.

RML: Do you know if that commission is still active?

MS. ACEVEDO: As in other areas with this administration, I don’t think they’ve quite filled all the positions yet.

RML: I asked because I was speaking recently with someone about the current absence of a presidential science advisor. In fact, a lot of the science advisory capacity in the Trump administration is basically inactive. So I’m curious about this commission because, obviously when you’re talking about education and young people, that’s a very important role.

CHF: Sylvia, you mentioned that you appreciated that you had benefited from Head Start and other programs, and what struck me earlier was when you said that in the corporate world you realized you were not getting the kind of professional grooming that your male colleagues got. Are you doing anything to help young professional women with mentoring or that kind of grooming, sort of paying it forward in the ways that you’ve done in other areas?

MS. ACEVEDO: That’s a great question. In the Girl Scouts we have an acronym “GIRL”: Go-getter, Innovator, Risk taker, Leader. The reason I immediately sought out how I could move ahead in my career is that Girl Scouts taught me how to create opportunity and to problem solve.

As an engineer I know the importance of a scalable business model. How can you scale something if you don’t have a model? In Girl Scouts our “business model” is to take girl potential, develop skills, and provide leadership experience. You learn something and have to do something with it—you have to take action, you have to problem solve. There also has to be a caring adult who is a troop leader and is interested in developing the girls’ potential.

Here is a real-world example. When I first started working at Sandia Labs they didn’t have a bathroom available for me. Instead of being angry, I immediately went into problem-solving mode. I thought, ‘When did I have another instance like that?’ And I remembered in Girl Scouts when we were going on an all-day hike and my troop leader asked us, “What do we need?” We said, “a hat,” “comfortable shoes.” She kept saying, “What else do you need?” Finally, she said, “How are you going to go to the bathroom on an all-day hike?” As a kid, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know.’ So we had to problem solve.

At Sandia I said to myself, ‘Okay, how am I going to problem-solve this?’ I identified where the closest -women’s bathrooms were and realized that if I had an emergency I’d have to bring a bike. So I did. In 6 weeks they finally bought me my own Porta-Potty that said ‘Hers.’

As an engineer, I wanted to get ahead and I noticed my managers didn’t always help me. In typical Girl Scout fashion I didn’t start blaming or complaining. I went immediately into problem solving.

As a Girl Scout I realized, here I am in the corporate environment where I see the informal and formal networking and mentoring they are doing for my male colleagues. No one’s doing it for me, so I figured out for myself what I needed to do to advance my career.

Recently I was in Silicon Valley talking with some of the top female tech leaders. They mentioned that Girl Scouting helped them realize that it’s okay to have a mentor, it’s okay to ask for support and guidance. If you grow up with that in Girl Scouts, it becomes embedded in how you think about things. A lot of times girls grow up thinking, ‘If I ask a question that means I don’t know something.’ Instead, Girl Scouts realize, ‘I can ask something and I can be a go-getter and go after that.’

RML: There seems to be a great deal of interest among women today in running for elected office, and Time magazine just had an extensive article on women who were considering running for elected office. Do you happen to know any of these women and whether they were Girl Scouts?

MS. ACEVEDO: Let me give you the numbers. I love these numbers! Girl Scouts are 8 percent of this country’s girl population but we represent more than half of all female elected officials. Almost 80 percent of all women US senators were Girl Scouts. I think all but one female elected governor, historic and current, were Girl Scouts. As were all three female secretaries of state.

RML: As the grandfather of four girls I’m delighted to hear this. Do you have any contact in your current life with any of those folks?

MS. ACEVEDO: Yes, we reach out to the senators and representatives. But to look at your question in a slightly different way, I didn’t initially realize the impact of Girl Scouts in my own life.

About 10 or 12 years ago I got a phone call from -Stanford. Somebody was working in the archives department and doing a study and said, “I want to talk to you because frankly you’re one of the first Hispanics, male or female, to have gotten your graduate engineering degree from Stanford and you are still one of the few. We want to find out why you knew about Stanford, because Stanford wasn’t actively recruiting in southern New Mexico at the time, so how is it that you had the right training, the right skills, the right aptitude to be prepared to excel at Stanford. Did you have wealthy parents? Did you have college professors as parents?” I said, “No. We lived paycheck to paycheck.” They kept asking me, “Well, why was it that you took advanced calculus? And chemistry physics?” At the time girls like me weren’t even graduating from high school much less going on to college much less becoming an engineer.

That was when I made the connection with Girl Scouts. I was out on a camping trip, and after we finished eating our s’mores I stayed looking at the beautiful night sky—we were in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My troop leader saw me and sat next to me and pointed out the constellations, the different stars, and the planets. My parents had seen me looking at the stars but they had never pointed out the Big Dipper or Little Dipper. I learned that there are systems up in the night sky.

The troop leader remembered that and later, when we were earning our badges and I wanted to do what all my friends were doing—earning their cooking badge—she encouraged me to also earn my science badge. I demurred but she said, “I remember you looking at the stars. Why don’t you do something with space?” So I made an Estes rocket. It took several tries to make it. I learned you have to get the chemicals right, you have to get the heat source right. And when you get all of that right you can have success just like in cooking. By doing that, I realized I liked science and I was good at it.

That prompted me to continue to take math and science. So when the opportunity presented itself, I said, “I’m going to be an engineer.” Even though my college counselor didn’t encourage me I still went ahead and did that. And I’m so grateful that that historical archivist called me because at that point I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, if I look at my cousins, if I look at my friends, I’m the only one that has taken this path and that was thanks to Girl Scouts and thanks to my troop leader pointing out the stars and me having that hands-on science activity.’ Then I became very active in volunteering and being on the board and now I’m the CEO.

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CHF: This started from looking at the stars—you could have gone into astronomy or a science and yet you chose engineering. What led you in that direction?

MS. ACEVEDO: That’s easy. I remember back in the day, pre-Google, you could get college books about different careers, and I realized I liked people but I also liked systems and processes. Business didn’t strike me as particularly interesting, and neither did theoretical fields, for the sake of theory, like physics and chemistry. But wow, having a blend of both people and process, that really interested me. And that’s why I decided to study industrial and then systems engineering.

RML: So you’ve had academic experience, experience in the corporate world, and experience in terms of social engineering and social issues, I suppose is a way of characterizing it. I know you’ve been a lifelong Girl Scout but what was the decision point that led you to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts?

MS. ACEVEDO: There were two. One was from the Stanford interview, helping me understand how pivotal Girl Scouts was in my life. The other was from thinking how I could contribute at scale to make a difference.

A neighbor had asked me to volunteer reading at a local Title I school. I was helping a young girl and noticed she had terrible dental hygiene, so I began bringing in a toothbrush and some goldfish crackers (even though we weren’t supposed to). We’d eat the goldfish crackers and then I’d say, “Okay, let’s go brush our teeth.” I told her to keep her toothbrush and next week we would do the same thing. Well, the next week came and she didn’t have the toothbrush, so I went to Target and bought a whole bunch of toothbrushes. Every week I brought another one with me. After 6 weeks, she remembered her toothbrush. I said, “I’m so proud of you, you remembered your toothbrush.” And she said, “No, now everybody in my family has a toothbrush.”

At the time I was working in technology so I went to talk to the teacher and sort of indignantly said, “Did you know that child had horrible dental hygiene?” She looked at me and said, “Sylvia, do you have $35?” I said, “Huh?” She said, “Well, one of the kids just broke his eyeglasses and his family can’t afford to fix them, so can you give me $35 to fix the glasses?” I did, but then I had an epiphany: The school and teachers were overrun with tens of thousands of kids that needed glasses, toothbrushes, books. I’m really good as a systems thinker and this is a systems challenge. It doesn’t overwhelm me—it’s actually fun for me, it’s a problem to solve.

In Girl Scouts what I’m really excited about is that there are millions of girls who are underserved and underrepresented in rural areas, across every single zip code in America, and they would benefit from Girl Scouts. For me what’s exciting is the scale of the challenge of reaching more girls in a contemporary way.

RML: What’s the relationship between the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA? I understand that recently the Boy Scouts announced that girls could become Cub Scouts and I think eventually they will have the opportunity to earn Boy Scout badges and even the rank of Eagle Scout. Was there a conversation with the Girl Scouts in the evolution of that concept or policy on behalf of the Boy Scouts?

MS. ACEVEDO: We were incredibly disappointed that they decided to become coed. We are a girl-only, girl-focused organization and we continue to be. Our number one focus is girl safety and providing excep-tional programs for girls. That’s what we’re all about.

RML: I’m sort of surprised that there was no conversation between the organizations. Is that correct?

MS. ACEVEDO: They called to tell us they were going to do something. We disagreed vehemently but they went ahead. We’re amazingly disappointed that they did it.

RML: Is there something equivalent to an Eagle Scout in terms of the Girl Scout ranks and badges?

MS. ACEVEDO: We have three levels: Bronze, Silver, and Gold Award Girl Scouts. Gold Award is the premier and probably one of the most challenging youth-serving awards that a youth can earn. You have to have sustainable impact in your community that lasts beyond you. The Gold Award Girl Scout is amazing.

RML: I have to say, Sylvia, I’m thinking back to the comment about women who have announced their intention to run for elected office. I think I’m speaking to one who should consider that. Have you given that any thought?

MS. ACEVEDO: I always laugh when people say, “Hey, Sylvia, you should run, you should be a politician.” No, I am 100 percent engaged in what we’re doing in Girl Scouts.

RML: Well, I asked not only because you have insights that I think are on a national scale but also because I’m very concerned about the direction of the country. I think, frankly, having more women in Congress and other elected offices and in responsible positions in our government is and will be a good thing.

MS. ACEVEDO: I agree with you. Civics has been taken out of schools in some states and there are now generations of parents who haven’t been taught a formal process about civics. We’re reenergizing our civic engagement with badges in this area all the way from Daisies (kindergarten and 1st grade) to 12th grade. And our results speak for themselves—half of all female elected officials are Girl Scouts. So civic engagement is a really important part of what we do.

We’re also giving Girl Scouts the skills and the tools to be creators of their environment. We want to give girls the skills to design, to create their world, to be inventors, designers, and entrepreneurs in any field. The internet of things is going to change everything. I’ll give you an example.

A surgical device called the Da Vinci helps surgeons operate, but the company that developed the technology hired video gamers to develop the software. Then the company spent a lot of time to make sure doctors accepted it, but they didn’t have the same consideration about the nurses in the operating room—and they are absolutely vital. The average operating room nurse is (or at least used to be) 42 years old. She was not comfortable with video game technology. All of a sudden a new device is brought into the operating room. The doctor got trained; she didn’t, and the device isn’t natural or native to her. So hospitals decided to reach out to men, who are very familiar with the video game technology. But, given biases about men and nurses, they paid men more to be the surgical nurses running the Da Vinci.

That was about a decade ago. Now think about the internet of things: almost every device we’re going to interact with is going to have embedded technology. And it’s so important that women be there at the table with the right kinds of skills to ask questions, maybe do the coding, the design, the marketing, the legal, and other product functions. For certain businesses—-marketing, legal, software—the questions are vital.

We want to make sure that our Girl Scouts have that training, so that is an area we’re really scaling up. We now have 23 new STEM badges, 6 space badges, badges for robotics, civic engagement, and 18 new cyber-security badges. And that’s just the beginning! No matter what field you’re in, technology is going to be embedded in it and we want girls to be not just the users but the -designers and creators.

RML: What do the cybersecurity badges involve?

MS. ACEVEDO: When we were creating and test piloting our 23 STEM and outdoor badges, we asked the girls, “What else do you want?” They said, “We want to protect our lives digitally.” That’s cybersecurity. We looked for a partner and actually have two—Palo Alto Networks and Raytheon—in developing these 18 cybersecurity badges.

For the younger ages, such as the Daisies and Brownies, it’s really about learning safe protocols. How do you establish your online presence? By the time girls are in middle school, it’s about internet browsers, traffic, web crawlers, so they can manage who is putting code on their computer and how they can prevent that. And for seniors and senior ambassadors, they’re going to be doing some pretty high-end hacking and coding.

RML: I think about what the internet was intended to be, which was basically a platform that allowed everyone everywhere on the planet to communicate and to have access to information. That was the intention. Now we see what it has morphed into in terms of hacking and even antisocial behavior. One of our other interviewees in this series, a writer named Henry Petroski, recently referred to social media as “antisocial media,” and in many respects it is. When you think about the damage that can be done to young people, particularly by some of their counterparts who, for whatever reasons, want to be malicious, it can be a very dangerous thing. And the amount of time that kids spend with keyboards is staggering to me.

So I wonder, how do you instruct young women to manage their personal lives in the face of things like Facebook that can be friendly or very harmful?

MS. ACEVEDO: We train our volunteers and our girls about bullying, both in the real world and especially through social media. We help them find important tools to control the dialogue online.

But also an important part of Girl Scouts is being outdoors and unplugging. So even with a tremendous amount of effort around STEM, there will always be a component that is unplugged.

We want girls to be able to think without boundaries. When you’re looking at a digital device, somebody has predescribed your environment and what you’re going to see. We want girls not only to know how to program, to create digital solutions, but also to turn it off and develop interpersonal skills and a love of the outdoors. I think that’s one of the great things about our cookie program: it teaches you how to talk to people, how to set goals, how to deliver good customer service, how to ask for the order. So there’s a balance of stepping away from the computer and being in the real moment.

One of my favorite memories is of a bridging ceremony. We have bridging ceremonies all over the country, and I was invited to the one in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Bridge—11,000 girls walked over that bridge. Afterward, at Crissy Field, they had all sorts of fun hands-on activities, everything from robotics to crafts to dancing to singing. And there was a big circle and the girls threw their mobile devices there and for 6 hours they engaged in life, engaged with each other, and played. I loved that! I thought it was a good example of Girl Scouting. They may have used their mobile device to get there but then they were there engaged in activities, having fun with friends.

CHF: How wonderful! I want to go back, Sylvia, to your mention that you were involved in a startup. What was the nature of that startup? And also, while we’re on that subject, was that what got you to be identified on the website as an award-winning entrepreneur?

MS. ACEVEDO: The company, REBA Technology, had software to manage client-side IP server traffic. With all this traffic coming into servers, how do you prioritize and manage it? We had software that did that and the company was purchased.

After that I got into doing more work in the education field and started a company, CommuniCard, and earned many awards for the impact we made there. That’s also what got me on the White House Presidential Commission.

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RML: You obviously speak frequently to groups about Girl Scout activities, is that correct?

MS. ACEVEDO: I love talking about Girl Scouts because I know the big difference it made in my life.

RML: I can see why the word “inspirational” is an apt characterization of what you do. You have boundless energy and the things that you’re doing and have done are truly inspirational.

MS. ACEVEDO: Thank you.

RML: Where do you see the Girl Scouts heading in the next decade? What is your vision for the future of the Girl Scouts?

MS. ACEVEDO: We’re really excited about the path we have for girls. We’re staying with our pillars: the outdoors, STEM, life skills, and entrepreneurship. But we’re going to reach even more girls from underserved and underrepresented areas. Continual lifelong learning is important, so there will be more types of badges in relevant areas. And I think we’ll make the strong case of our economic impact on the workforce. So many women CEOs were Girl Scouts! Just name a top female leader and she was a Girl Scout. We haven’t been as articulate as we need to be about that.

There’s also the connection with our alumnae. I call the Girl Scouts “the forgotten leader” in women’s leadership. Like me, I forgot the connection. So we’re going to put a lot of effort into helping people remember the connection.

I was just speaking with a professor at Columbia Uni-versity. She said, “Sylvia, I was a Girl Scout, but I don’t know what you’re talking about—I don’t remember the connection.” She went home and, to her credit, she called me and said, “Sylvia, I have to apologize. I started a stock photo digital photography business and I was able to sell it profitably. I went home and found my Girl Scout sash and what did I see but two camera badges and also top cookie seller!”

Just like me, she had forgotten that connection and had to be reminded. We want to remind others of that connection.

CHF: So you’re going to build up Girl Scouts alumnae activities?

MS. ACEVEDO: You bet, we absolutely are. And use social media to do it.

CHF: That may also help to counter your concern about the fact that the Boy Scouts are now admitting girls. On that subject, I want to mention that I went to Bryn Mawr and we had coed classes, coed dorms, coed activities with Haverford College, which is about a mile down the road from Bryn Mawr. The last year I was there, Haverford decided to admit women. Well, of course, there was a hue and cry among us Mawrters—but it turns out not to have made any difference in the numbers of women applying to study at Bryn Mawr, which remains an all-women’s school.

The other thing is that with all of the stories about abuses by men in power, there may be a particular attractiveness to an activity that is a haven for young women in the Girl Scouts.

I offer these as evidence that the Girl Scouts will remain strong as a girls-only program.

MS. ACEVEDO: Thank you, I appreciate that.

RML: Sylvia, we typically ask the folks we interview if there is any message they would like to convey to Bridge readers, who include not only the NAE members but also members of Congress and people at engineering schools and many other interested subscribers—about 7,000 in all. What message would you like to give our readers?

MS. ACEVEDO: Girls in the United States are an amazingly untapped resource for America and right now America needs all of its best talent to compete in the global economy. Girl Scouts is poised to develop girls: to encourage confidence and character and make the world better and with the right kinds of skills to succeed in the 21st century.

RML: That’s a wonderful message. I think highlighting the impact that women have had on the legislative process, in terms of elected officials, and in other areas is something that most Americans are unaware of but would be delighted to know. I think that’s something that your banners ought to fly because it’s very, very important.

MS. ACEVEDO: The only other thing I would ask is if you could put in a plug for readers who were Girl Scouts to put it on their LinkedIn profile.

CHF: Before we close, Sylvia, I just want to ask, it looks like you went skydiving?

MS. ACEVEDO: Right, I did. I went with the Golden Knights. The Army was a partner in our grassroots campaigns and it had such an impact on helping the military that as a thank you they allowed me to go skydiving with the Golden Knights.

CHF: What did you think?

MS. ACEVEDO: Oh my gosh! I went with a guy who had 6,000 jumps so, although initially I was scared, once I met him I realized I could not be in safer hands. We did some pretty amazing things. We did the James Bond thing and did a dive bomb because we didn’t release the smaller chute right away. I think we jumped from 3 miles and released the big parachute at 2 miles. When you jump out of a plane—

CHF: You’re falling at 120 miles an hour.

MS. ACEVEDO: Yes, and when we dived I really did feel like I was in a James Bond movie. Then we released the smaller parachute so that it could be a little easier going down—that was fun because then you could see things—and then we put out the bigger chute. It was a great experience.

CHF: Wasn’t it wonderful! Once the big chute opens the descent is actually very tranquil and serene.

MS. ACEVEDO: Yes, it really is. It is quite quiet.

CHF: I don’t have any other questions. Thank you so much, Sylvia.

RML: Yes, thank you very much. I am so delighted to have had this conversation and to know that the Girl Scouts of the USA are in such good hands.

MS. ACEVEDO: And thank you very much for your time. I appreciate everything you’re doing at the academy.

About the Author:Sylvia Acevedo is CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA