This week for The Power of Women, Lisa Gable chats with Sylvia Acevedo, former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, rocket scientist, and Corporate Director, to talk about optimism, resilience and how women can apply and use both to achieve their goals. Stay tuned throughout March for more inspiring stories in honor of Women’s History month.
Interview with Sylvia Acevedo
LG: Today’s interview is about OPTIMISM. Joining me is a woman who is renowned for seeking out opportunities to solve complex problems and quickly expand the solutions’ impact. Sylvia Acevedo, former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, rocket scientist, and Corporate Director, spreads her optimism and can-do spirit to young girls across the country. I have known Sylvia since we started on the Girl Scout Board together 15 years ago, and I consider her a dear friend. Sylvia—please introduce yourself.
SA: Growing up living on a dirt road with a family struggling living paycheck to paycheck, I now realize that Head Start and Girl Scouts were two programs that gave me a boost, a “leg up on life.” Head Start fostered that love of learning, reading and curiosity and Girl Scouts provided the leadership, science and entrepreneurship programs so I developed the important qualities of persistence, courage, resilience, character and confidence. When I became the CEO of Girl Scouts, I wanted girls to develop those same qualities. I led the shift to contemporary relevant programming of 146 new badges in STEM, Outdoors, Civics and Entrepreneurship, so that girls gained the skills to live a life of their potential and to transform the future. I wanted girls to not only be the users of technology, but its creators, inventors and designers.
As the world is now being recreated digitally, I want the rising generation to have the skills and leadership ability to define and create what they want out of this new world, its economy and society. To have more control over what technology they consume and use for business, security, socially and with their family and community. I wrote the middle school memoir, Path to the Stars, my journey from Girl Scouts to Rocket Scientist, to inspire the rising generation that they can live a life of their potential. I am proud that the book is also available in Spanish, Camino a las Estrellas. I would have loved reading a book like that when I was younger in both English and Spanish with my mom who was born in Mexico and became a US citizen. Many teachers across the country have reached out to let me know that they are using Path to the Stars in their middle school curriculums because it truly engages and inspires their students. Student’s lives, now and in the future, personally and professionally, have a digital component. It is so vital to have the skills to understand technology and also the leadership characteristics, qualities and organizational skills to work well with people in this digital age. Those traits and abilities are going to give them their “leg up on life.”
LG: Throughout the pandemic, many young girls and young women were stuck on Zoom, not able to see friends as much. What words of encouragement do you have for those that feel isolated from time to time? We know a lot of moms are watching—what would you tell them to tell their daughters about how to leverage the resilience they have had to build during tougher times over the last couple of years?
SA: As we come out of the pandemic, it is a time for a return to balance away from largely technology as our main source of connectivity to one another. It is vital that we also embrace authentic, in person, connections with one another. Our well being, for ourselves, our children and friends is paramount. People matter most, and we need to embed that in our daily actions, taking breaks, walks with friends and enjoying nature. We need, and children especially need, that unstructured time. We are human beings, not human “doings.” Those moments to wonder and just be still are so very important for our well being. While I am proud of the technology programs at Girl Scouts, I am eqully proud of the outdoors badges that encouraged girls to discover the great outdoors, get in touch with their 5 senses, beyond what they see and hear on their mobile device, and to experience discovery and wonder in their friendships and in nature.
The important skills of persistence, resilience and that formidable ability to figure out how to turn a no into a yes are skills I gained as a young girl through the Girl Scout cookie program. I learned not to take no for an answer until I have heard “no” at least three times. That helped me to overcome many barriers to opportunity that I faced as a young girl in rural New Mexico. I heard “no” a lot, from wanting to be an engineer and later as a trailblazer, the first female in many endeavors in corporate America. Those skills of persistence, resilience and finding common ground to get to a yes was great training for a career that took me from rocket scientist, engineer, tech exec, White House Commissioner, CEO of one of the world’s most trusted brands, and now, serving on corporate boards of directors.
LG: You are an innovator—in tech, management systems, thought leadership. Share with women who are watching the top 2-3 tricks you employ to command the room and ensure that your ideas are incorporated into people’s thinking.
SA: Communication strategies can supercharge your career, in presentations, in board rooms or getting your point across with colleagues. Learning how to make your point in an engaging, relevant manner quickly is an invaluable skill. When you enter a meeting, be prepared to take your seat at the table. Lots of women take a side seat instead of sitting at the main table. You have to find or create an opening to provide your input in a way that moves the purpose of the meeting forward. It shows great leadership when you provide solutions and communicate them in a way that is clear, direct and actionable. If someone tries to co-opt your idea, don’t be afraid to interject and retake ownership of your idea. You can use humor, noting that your original idea was so good that others already want to take credit for it.
LG: Let’s talk about transitions. Like me, you have managed to move across a variety of industries and in/out of the world of philanthropy. Can you share your top tips on how you position yourself to enter a new arena and be taken seriously? What do you do when people say, “Oh you don’t have the right background?”
SA: There is a lot to be said for moving laterally and applying your skills in new ways that expand and boost your career. In switching industries, I’ve found it most beneficial to figure out how to apply a strength to solve a pressing problem in the new industry. Starting my career as a rocket scientist was incredibly valuable because that scientific training gave me the technical, problem solving and big picture thinking skills that has provided a foundation for everything I’ve gone on to do. Whether it was making the switch from domestic to international sales, or different industries, tech to education, I did the research and figured out how to present my skills in ways that were relevant and solved a problem in the new company or industry.
When I decided to go work in education, from technology, I did the research and found that there was a gap between access to information and supplies such as books, playground balls, eyeglasses and dental supplies for children in underserved neighborhoods. I led community wide grassroots campaigns that provided over a quarter of a million books, 20,000 sports balls, 11,000 plus eyeglasses, over 25,000 dental kits via family friendly educational events across the country that provided parents with the information that they needed to help their child succeed in school. Those educational campaigns got national attention which led to my becoming a White House Educational Commissioner.
LG: Which women inspired you to break through? What are you doing to inspire the next generation of female leaders now that you have left Girl Scouts? What advice do you have for a young woman watching who’s trying to break through, or a woman who might be re-entering the workforce?
SA: My major inspirations have been Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. They were both trailblazing women who used their skills to solve major problems in non traditional fields. Clara Barton, the angel of the battlefield, created new supply chains and distribution methods for medical supplies that saved lives during the Civil War. Clara Barton also created the First Aid Kit and started the American Red Cross. Florence Nightingale was one of the first to grasp and apply statistical analysis to improve battlefield outcomes during the Crimean War. Her innovative triage methodologies saved thousands of lives and are still used to this day. These two women inspired me because of their trailblazing innovations, intelligence, determination and ability to positively change the world even though they faced tremendous societal pressures.
The pandemic, and zoom, have created a back to the future moment in business and especially in the tech industry. In person meetings allowed many women the opportunity to network at the office, have proximity to decision makers and effectively manage in person meetings. With the pandemic and zoom meetings, many women are reaching out to me for strategies of how to make their voices heard, get their projects approved and get promoted. Studies have shown that men have been promoted 3 x more than women during the pandemic. As I work with these women and their companies, we collaborate to make sure that they have strategies and tactics for a hybrid work environment so that everyone’s work and teams are getting the recognition and visibility that they deserve. I recommend regular “coffee/tea” breaks (virtual or in person)with your boss, timely recaps of your accomplishments, especially before annual evaluations or when your team has hit a major milestone, as important tactics to support your career trajectory.