It’s not a stretch to say Girl Scout CEO Sylvia Acevedo lives and breathes science.
For an interview, the former NASA rocket scientist has been known to show up with a sweater — and footwear — adorned with planets and stars. As a Girl Scout in New Mexico, Acevedo got her science badge by building a model rocket. So this idea that Girl Scouts are all about crafts and cookies, and that girls would be better off constructing cars with boy scouts? Please.
“The world is being rewritten in algorithms and code, and we need to have girls and women who have the skills… to create that future,” Acevedo said in a phone interview from New York. “We want to make sure that America’s workforce has its more than fair share of women, who are able to keep us globally competitive.”
Acevedo, 61, took the CEO spot at America’s second largest scouting organization in 2016 after more than two decades at major tech companies, holding engineering and sales posts at IBM, Apple, Dell and Autodesk.
Her mission is two-fold: bolster membership and increase the science, technology and engineering badges the nonprofit’s 1.8 million girls and teens can earn.
That focus was both an acknowledgment of how relevant skills for young people had evolved — kids need to learn things like coding and how to build machines, not just how to sell cookies — and a reflection of her own trajectory.
Growing up on a dirt road, the child of an immigrant parent and grandparents who often lived paycheck to paycheck, Acevedo got turned on to science when a Scout leader saw her looking up at the stars during an overnight camping trip. To get the science badge, she learned to construct an Estes model rocket. She dreamed of going to Stanford University, but was told girls “like you,” meaning Hispanic girls, didn’t go to college. When she got her first job as a field engineer, as a college student at New Mexico State University, her employer didn’t have a women’s bathroom.
But she made it, eventually earning a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University. And at the Girl Scouts, some five decades after that starry New Mexico night, Acevedo’s pushed through new badges aimed at the next generation of star-gazers: in cybersecurity, mechanical engineering and, of course, rocket science. She helped ink partnerships with cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks and defense contractor Raytheon to develop programming challenges. And it’s now common for a local Girl Scout troop to be learning binary code through construction paper bracelets or building a pom-pom catapult out of cups, straws and rubber bands.
Those efforts were lauded as tech companies and lawmakers started to ask why so few women were joining the fast-growing tech workforce. Women make up just 14% of workers in engineering and 25% of those in computer science, according to the Pew Research Center, yet companies complain of persistent worker shortages in both fields.
But then Acevado is facing a new challenge: The Boy Scouts, the older scouting organization that for most of its lifespan was only open to boys, changed its name and opened its doors to girls. And the Girl Scouts fought back, both in the press and then earlier this year, with a lawsuit that charged the Boy Scouts’ new name (Scouts BSA) was a trademark violation.
Acevedo would not comment on the lawsuit, but she’s been clear about why she thinks programming focused solely on girls is important.
“Girls excel in single-gender or single only environments like Girl Scouts because you can fail, because you can try something until you learn it,” Acevedo says. “You’re not in that environment when the teachers tend to call boys first … and they get pushed aside.”
She knows the value of being allowed, even encouraged, to try and fail: Acevedo’s first rocket, the paper construction that eventually led her to a career at NASA, wouldn’t get off the ground at first. Persisting through her frustration, she says, she learned about gravity’s pull and how to break it, and she became fascinated by the physics of launching a rocket.
“At that point, I had that moment realizing that not only could I do science, I liked science,” Acevedo says.