You could say Sylvia Acevedo’s life has come full circle.
As a Girl Scout she learned vital life lessons that empowered her to become an IBM engineer, a NASA rocket scientist, an executive for Apple, Dell, and Autodesk and an award-winning entrepreneur.
Over and over again, she saw that it was the lessons she learned as a Girl Scout that formed the leader she is today. And today, she’s the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the United States, an organization over 100 years old with nearly 2 million members.
As a little girl, Acevedo loved being a Girl Scout, but her family was too financially strapped for her to continue to pursue it. Her troop leader told her there was another way, and taught her about “creating opportunity.” She learned she could raise the money she needed to continue participating by selling Girl Scout Cookies. So, she calculated how many boxes she needed to sell and broke that down over a period of weeks.
Her troop leader said you don’t walk away from a potential sale “`until you've heard no at least three times,’” Acevedo recalled in an interview with Global Mentor Network. That advice became a life-long mantra for her.
Selling to friends and family wasn’t hard, but she’d have to face her fear of selling to people she didn’t know to meet her goal. In an effort to ease into selling to strangers, she decided a next door neighbor, to whom she’d never spoken to, would be up first. She approached the neighbor as the woman was going to her car.
“I asked her if she wanted to buy some Girl Scout cookies, and she said no,” Acevedo said. “She looked at me like, `Well I said no. Go away little girl.’”
But Acevedo persevered.
“I said, ‘Is there anybody else in your home that would want to buy Girl Scout cookies?’ And she said, ‘No.’ And again she looked at me like ‘go.’
“I said, ‘Would there be anybody’s day you would make if you bought some Girl Scout cookies?’ And she bought one box! That was important because it taught me persistence, resilience. That was an important lesson for my entire life.”
In fact, Acevedo said, “Had it not been for Girl Scouts I would've had a totally different life.”
Acevedo recounted numerous examples of the role the “not taking no until you’ve heard it three times” rule, and the mindset of creating opportunity, has played in her career.
She’s been named one of Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business,” and “Cybersecurity Person of the Year” by Cybersecurity Ventures, both in 2018.
Forbes named her one of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech. In 2019 InStyle magazine named Acevedo as one of “The Badass 50: Women Who Are Changing the World,” ranking her number seven.
Acevedo is also the author of Path to the Stars: My Journey From Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist.
Creating Opportunity Well Into Her Future
Born at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, where her officer father was stationed, Acevedo was raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Her interest in science was nurtured when she first joined the Girl Scouts. One evening she was looking up at the stars and her troop leader explained to her there were constellations and other planets. “The idea of star systems just really captured my imagination,” she said.
Her troop leader encouraged her to earn a science badge, which she did. That stoked her confidence in her aptitude for science and math. In her words, she eventually became “rocket-scientist good at it.”
After learning about Stanford University in fourth grade, she announced to her teacher she was going to attend and her teacher encouraged the dream. She immediately learned what it could take to achieve Stanford:good grades and money. And so, as was ingrained in her by the Girl Scouts, she set out to create opportunity. She kept her grades up and eventually worked and saved.
Then just as she was graduating high school her grandmother died and there wasn’t enough money to give her a proper burial. Acevedo stepped up and offered her college money. It meant that she’d need to attend a local state college before Stanford, but she reset her goal to attending graduate school at Stanford–which she did.
“It was just a dream deferred but not denied,” she says.
Breaking Down Barriers and Guiding the Next Generation of Women Leaders
She earned a Master’s degree in Systems Engineering from Stanford University after earning her Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from New Mexico State University.
Making her way in the working world required maneuvering around numerous hurdles of sexism. Acevedo dealt with male bosses questioning if men in certain countries would work with and respect a Latino woman.
“I had to do things that were creative and innovative, but it goes back to how do you solve the problem?” she said. “How do you get to that ‘yes.’ How do you turn that ‘no’ around?”
In this same vein, Acevedo is mindful of the responsibility she has as CEO of the Girl Scouts. Some 60 percent of women in Congress were Girl Scouts and the number jumps to more than 70 percent out of the pool of women U.S. senators. As CEO, Acevedo has brought a commitment to STEM in a relevant, fun and engaging way.
Due to technology changing the world and workforce, tech skills are a must for women, she says. For example, even the $3 trillion dollar fashion industry is “being completely remade around technology,” she adds.
“I'm so focused on making sure that we have really great engaging programs around science technology engineering and math and we do. In the last three years we've developed a hundred new badges and programs. And I'll tell you the girls are loving them. The engagement levels are way up.”
In the first year offering cyber security badges, around 100,000 badges were earned from girls all over the country, not just in high-tech hubs.
Making a pivot from scientist to CEO is no small feat. Acevedo relies on being a good listener and being empathetic in order to be a good leader in business. She believes this is how you discover problems. The key to successful leadership, for her and for every leader, is her ability to communicate and rally her organization around a clear goal for the future.
“You just can't tell people what to do,” she says. “You have to influence and inspire them.”
Watch Sylvia Acevedo’s 1-3 minute video interviews with the Global Mentor Network, where she expands on the topics discussed in this profile and talks about new ones with Thuy Vu, CEO of GMN.
The Global Mentor Network (GMN) was founded by Keith Krach, a Silicon Valley tech legend, in 2019. GMN’s mission is to help build the transformational leaders who will shape tomorrow’s world through the power of mentorship at scale.