What Do Nancy Pelosi, Taylor Swift, and Serena Williams Have in Common?
They — along with a great many other high-achieving women — were all once Girl Scouts. So was Sylvia Acevedo. Raised in a poor, immigrant family, she was told that “girls like her” didn’t go to college. But she did, and then became a rocket scientist and tech executive. Now she’s C.E.O. of the very organization she credits with shaping her life. Acevedo tells us how the Girl Scouts are trying to stay relevant, why they’re suing the Boy Scouts, and how they sell so many cookies.
What do Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have in common? All three female secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright — have this same thing in common, too. Also Taylor Swift, Meghan Markle, and Queen Latifah. Melinda Gates, Venus and Serena Williams, and nearly every female astronaut who’s ever been in space.
The Girl Scouts were founded in 1912 by a Georgia woman named Juliette Gordon Low. Inspired by the Boy Scout model, Low wanted girls to have the space to learn self-reliance in everything from camping and cooking to citizenship and career training.
Today, the organization is run by Sylvia Acevedo, who grew up in a poor, Spanish-speaking family in Las Cruces, New Mexico and went on to become a Stanford-educated engineer, a rocket scientist, and tech executive. As Acevedo sees it, much of this might not have been possible had she not also been a Girl Scout. On this week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio, we talk to Acevedo about how the Girl Scouts are trying to stay relevant in an increasingly digital age.
Stephen J. Dubner: So, it was on a Girl Scout camping trip that you first got interested in science?
Sylvia Acevedo: My troop leader saw me just looking at the night sky. She helped me understand that there were constellations and planets, and I had no idea. I just knew there were twinkly lights. But she remembered that and, later on, encouraged me to earn my science badge. And I wasn’t successful at first. I mean, it took me quite a few times before I was successful.
You were trying to launch an Estes model rocket, but you had a really hard time getting it off the ground, right?
I was like, “What is this that won’t let my rocket go up?” And so I learned about this invisible force called gravity that keeps things down. In fact, I really did get kind of inspired trying to figure out, how do you break gravity’s grip?
You faced some other hurdles along the way. Like your high school college counselor?
When she walked out and she looked at me, she said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I signed up to go to college counseling.” And she said, “Girls like you don’t go to college.” And, to be fair, statistically, she was probably right. I just stood up and walked into her office, and she followed me, and then she said, “What do you want to study?” And I said, “I want to be an engineer.” And she laughed.
I think that most people when they hear that story, they would imagine themselves responding with anger or hurt or resentment. But you seem to be the kind of person who was able to let that sort of thing roll off you — and then get to the next level, keep pushing for your goal. I’m curious whether you think that’s a natural ability or whether you learned to do that — and if you have any advice for people who, when they face a “no,” a failure, how to not let the weight of that failure keep them from moving forward?
I think that has to do a lot with problem solving. How do you solve the problem? And when you think of it that way, you’re not just trying to solve the problem for yourself, you’re also trying to meet their need and solve the problem they’re also trying to solve. In my career, I faced this quite a bit. There was one company that I was working for, and I wanted to move from domestic sales to international sales. And I saw that there were some openings for people who could speak Spanish and had this technical background. And I could not break in. There was always some excuse why it wasn’t a fit. And so I kept trying to figure out how do I get this so that they can’t say no? And I love numbers, right? Numbers are sort of my superpower. So I did a lot of data analysis and I showed that if their penetration of some major multinational accounts was the same as my accounts, that region would have hundreds of millions of dollars more in sales. And I created this presentation. And I got that five minutes with that really busy sales vice president. And I flipped through the presentation, and he looked at that. He’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is really great.” And so he went to grab it. And he said, “Well, can’t I have it?’ And I put my hand on it and I said, “Yeah, you can, but it comes with me.” And I finally got the job.
So which came first: Sylvia Acevedo the smart, disciplined self-starter or Sylvia Acevedo the Girl Scout? What I mean is you’ve got this remarkable record of accomplishment and discipline and intellect. Much of it accomplished with not very much advantage, and often active disadvantage. You also, though, joined the Girl Scouts when you were young, and you said that that gave you a big boost. But you were someone who, it seems, had so much drive that I wonder if you really needed the Girl Scouts.
So, about 14 years ago, somebody was doing research at Stanford, and they called me. They said, “You know, you’re one of the first Hispanic male or females to have ever gotten your graduate engineering degree from Stanford. And, unfortunately, you’re still one of the few.” So they said, “So how did all this happen? Were your parents college professors?” “No.” And so they kept saying, “Well, how were you prepared with the math and the science?” And the more they kept asking, it did go back to that pivotal Girl Scout experience.
You recently published a book, for middle-school readers, called Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist. And you noticed something on the book tour.
When the girls are in the early ages, in elementary school, there’s just this exuberance and enthusiasm, and they’re raising their hands. By the time they get to middle school, they don’t raise their hands. And we do know that in classrooms, boys get called on more than girls. And I think that’s why Girl Scouts tend to over-index in so many nontraditional fields. Half of all female elected officials in America were Girl Scouts. I think that a girl-only environment allows you to try things safely. And also, if you don’t succeed the first time, it’s not like, “Okay, you tried it. You’re not going to be good at it. You’re not good at computers. So get away from it.” You get to try, try, and try again until you either decide you like it, or you see success in it. And I know that’s what happened to me.
Your first job after graduating college at New Mexico State University was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), as a rocket scientist working on Voyager 2’s mission to Jupiter and its moons, and on a later mission to explore the sun. Considering your early fascination with the night sky, and with rockets, and with science generally, I’m surprised you didn’t stay at JPL, or return there after you got your graduate degree in engineering at Stanford. Why not?
When you’re working with NASA, and especially when you’re working with missions that are going to different planets, payday or “Christmas” is when that actual spacecraft is passing that planet. And I realized it was going to be not just months, not just years, it could be decades before the next great event happened. And then I saw everything happening around Silicon Valley, and I really liked the pace. I was fortunate to graduate from Stanford right at sort of ground zero of the Internet explosion.
You then worked for IBM, Apple, Dell, and Autodesk, whose CEO at the time was Carol Bartz, one of the few female CEOs in tech. Was that a different experience?
It was really a different dynamic to have a female CEO. I think I counted 36 people that had, you know, revenue responsibilities across the organization. And I was the only female, obviously in addition to Carol. But the moment I got hired, everyone kept saying “Oh gosh, do we have to start wearing skirts now? Is this like the only way you can get promoted?” And I remember thinking, “Holy cow, there’s 35 of you. And there’s like me and Carol.”
Were there more females hired over time in senior positions there?
Yes. Carol was really good about making sure that we looked high and low for the right talent. Not just looking within our networks — really going to different areas.
I am curious to know your views on the gender pay gap generally. There is a lot of argument over the degree of the gap, the causes of the gap, the consequences, and what should be done about it. As we speak, the U.S. women’s national team soccer players are suing their own federation over gender bias and pay disparity with the men’s team. So what’s your position?
You know, in technology, one of the things I would do when I took over the department is I would do that gender analysis. And I would find huge disparities. And in one case, there was a woman that was being paid $35,000 a year, and they analyzed the work she was doing — we were paying men $105,000 for that job. And she didn’t know. She didn’t know the difference. She was happy that she had that job.
I realized that not a lot of women had that courage and confidence to ask for the additional stock options, to ask, is this the best salary? Asking all those questions to make sure I was getting treated fairly and getting adequately compensated — you know, a lot of women aren’t raised that way, don’t think that way. Or there are practices and policies that don’t reinforce that.
In an increasingly digital world, success often means an intense engagement with technology. In that regard, girls and women are trailing. They are severely underrepresented at tech firms, especially in senior leadership, where women hold about one in 10 positions. There are of course many possible factors behind this underrepresentation, but Acevedo is convinced that the Girl Scouts can play a role in reducing these gender gaps and creating the workforce of the future.
When you took over as CEO of the Girl Scouts, the organization was having some difficulty in terms of membership and leadership. Can you describe what it was like coming in? What were the fixes or challenges you immediately turned to?
So when that opportunity came, it was really focused on really three things. It’s about membership. It’s about the movement. And it’s about money. And to get people very focused, that that’s what we’re about. We’re about the girl. We have to provide a fun, relevant, and safe experience for the girl. And so, many girls across America now have a digital device in their hands, as does their mom or their parents. So let’s get programming that helps them not just be users of technology but the creators and the inventors and the designers. We have this amazing ability to reach girls across America. We have a scale that’s unmatched. And right now, we’re using that to create the workforce of the future.
To that end, I understand the Girl Scouts have been adding a lot of badges and programs that promote STEM learning: science, technology, engineering, and math.
There’s design thinking, there’s robotics, there’s data analytics, there’s NASA badges about space science, there’s citizen science, there’s coding, programming, engineering, cybersecurity badges. You know, we’ll always focus on the outdoors and leadership. But it’s so important right now to make sure that we can give girls the skills they need to lead in the 21st century.
Let’s talk about the economics of Girl Scout cookies. I’ve read reports that annual cookie revenues are in the neighborhood of $700 to $800 million? Is that roughly accurate?
That is correct. We are the second-largest cookie business in America. Second only to Oreo.
It sounds as though the cookie program is a key component of Girl Scouts — for entrepreneurial, goal-setting, and financial purposes.
Yes. Julia Gordon Low faced the same dilemma that many girls and women’s organizations face, which is: girls and women’s organizations get less than 10% of every philanthropic dollar. One of the reasons that we have been able to thrive for over 100 years is that when Julia Gordon Low learned about an enterprising Girl Scout Council in Oklahoma that was doing a cookie sale, she immediately saw that that was how we could fund the movement. I’m so grateful for that because that has allowed us to continue to be inclusive and diverse from the very beginning.
I understand that the Girl Scouts are presently suing the Boy Scouts, yes? Can you give us the background on that?
Sure. You know, they made a change in their policy and decided to accept girls. But we are the owners — the intellectual property, trademark owners — of the phrase “Girl Scouts.” So you cannot call females in that organization “girl scouts.” We are the Girl Scouts.
So, I know your membership has declined somewhat, but the Boy Scouts’ membership has fallen much faster than yours. Do you have any thoughts as to why that is? Do you think the Girl Scouts are more valuable to the modern American girl than the Boy Scouts are to the modern American boy?
I really can’t make judgments on their organization. But what I can say about Girl Scouts is we really are focused on that girl-only experience. And on creating a program that works for them, that is designed around the way girls learn and lead.
I’m curious about your thoughts on same-sex education generally. A lot of great women-only colleges have, over the past 40 or 50 years, become coed. The research on same-sex education is kind of mixed, or in progress right now; it’s really hard to find a definitive answer. But do you think that is a loss for society?
What you’re talking about at the college level is certainly true, there’s fewer of them. But you know I used to live in Austin, Texas. And across the state there is just a huge growth in the number of all-girls public schools. We live in a coed world, but we work with girls 5 to 18 and want to give them that confidence and those skills so that they can be successful in life and navigate the world. And clearly our outcomes show that they can.
So I’m guessing that the Girl Scouts of the USA will not ever accept boys.
You know, just like any good business, you focus on what you do well and what we are experts in is how girls learn and lead.
I’m curious to know about the Girl Scouts’ policy on policy. I can think of a number of issues that are in the news today — immigration, abortion, etc. — that a female organization would have a particular take on. What is the official position on politics and policy, and the endorsement of candidates and things like that?
We’re a nonpartisan organization. We exist for the girls. So we don’t tell girls what to value, what to think. We realize that what people want is change, especially change in policies and in politics. So, we’ve said, “Well, let’s make sure that girls understand how you do that in a democracy, regardless of what it is.” So, we’re teaching girls how to create the change they want to see in the world, the positive change they want to see, but we’re not telling them what that is.
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