What Do Nancy Pelosi, Taylor Swift, and Serena Williams Have in Common? (Ep. 385)
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.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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I’ve been speaking with Sylvia Acevedo, who’s telling me about a rule she learned when she was a kid. This rule, she says, has been a big force in her life, and helped shape her impressive career. It is called the “rule of three ‘no’s.” I ask her to demonstrate, with some role-play. I’m playing a grumpy old man who’s just answered his doorbell. And she’s playing — well, it’ll be obvious who she’s playing.
Sylvia ACEVEDO: So first I would ask you if you would like to buy some wonderful, delicious Girl Scout cookies.
Stephen J. DUBNER: And I would say, “Do I look like I need to eat more cookies, little girl? Get off my doorstep. No.”
ACEVEDO: And I’d say, “You know, buying cookies, you can eat them for yourself or you can give them— they’re really very delicious. People at your work, or your family would really enjoy having these cookies. So I would really encourage that.”
DUBNER: I’m retired and my wife died, and I have no family. I don’t want your cookies. Get off my porch, little girl.
ACEVEDO: All right. Well, sir, it sounds like you don’t— you would need some more friends, and I would really encourage you to buy a box of and take it to your neighbor. And you can meet your neighbors and they would really enjoy getting this box of cookies from you, sir.
Who, exactly, is this clever and determined woman?
ACEVEDO: I’m Sylvia Acevedo and I’m C.E.O., Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.
And what, exactly, is the Girl Scouts’ mission?
ACEVEDO: Creating girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.
But I’m guessing there’s a lot you don’t know about the Girl Scouts. Including the fact that cookie sales, which generate more than $700 million a year, are an economic necessity dating back to the organization’s founder.
ACEVEDO: Yes. Because she faced the same dilemma that many girls and women’s organizations face, which is: girls and women’s organizations get less than 10 percent of every philanthropic dollar.
And there’s a lot you don’t know about Sylvia Acevedo too. How her low-income, Latinx background did not exactly pave the way for future success.
ACEVEDO: She said, “Girls like you don’t go to college.”
How she became a rocket scientist and then a tech executive — again, swimming against the tide.
ACEVEDO: I’ve got all these great qualifications and experience. And he said, “Well, you’re a woman.”
And the problems the Girl Scouts are dealing with today. Like: how to stay relevant in an increasingly digital world. And: what to do about the Boy Scouts.
ACEVEDO: So you cannot call females in that organization “girl scouts.” We are the owners — intellectual-property owners, trademark owners — of the phrase “Girl Scouts.”
It’s rare for the C.E.O. of an organization to have been a member of said organization when they were a child. But that’s the case with Sylvia Acevedo. Today on Freakonomics Radio: Girl Scout power then, now, and forever?
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Here’s a question: what do Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have in common? Sure, they’re all female members of the United States Congress, and they’re all Democrats. But it goes beyond that. All three female Secretaries of State — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright — they all have this same thing in common too. But 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. Yes, all these women were once Girl Scouts. As was Sylvia Acevedo.
DUBNER: So what I want to know is: which came first? Sylvia Acevedo, the smart, disciplined self-starter, or Sylvia Acevedo the Girl Scout? And what I mean by that 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’ve 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. I wonder which direction the arrow is traveling in.
ACEVEDO: So, about 14 years ago, somebody was doing research at Stanford, and they called me. They said, “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.
Acevedo recently published a book, for middle-school readers, called Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist.
ACEVEDO: I did this book tour and I went across the country — urban, rural, suburban areas. And what I was struck with — I saw that as the girls got older, so when they’re in the early ages in elementary school, there’s just this exuberance and enthusiasm, and raising their hands. By the time they get to middle school, they don’t raise their hands. So much so that I started to institute a rule that I would only take questions if they were alternating boy-girl-boy-girl. And we do know that in classrooms, boys get called on more than girls.
And I think about — in our girl-only space, 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. So I think that girl-only environment allows you to try things safely. And also if you don’t succeed the first time, it’s not, “Okay, you tried it. You’re not going to be good at it. You’re not good at a 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.
Acevedo is 61 years old. She was born in South Dakota:
ACEVEDO: I was born in South Dakota but I grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. All my grandparents were born in Mexico. My mom was born in Mexico. My dad was born in El Paso, Texas. And we lived in a Spanish-speaking household. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes we ran out of money, we had to go live with other family members. You know, this was my reality.
Because of where we lived, unfortunately, there was a health epidemic of meningitis, and my sister got really sick. And we moved because my mother realized the only part of town where people got sick was in this dirt-street neighborhood that we lived in and we moved to another part of town. But I didn’t like it because I had all my friends, everything that I knew, there. But at that point a girl followed me and pestered me to come to see Girl Scouts. And then I just fell in love with Girl Scouts.
The Girl Scouts were founded in 1912 by a Georgia woman named Juliette Gordon Low. She’d been 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. It was on a Girl Scout camping trip that Sylvia Acevedo first got interested in science.
ACEVEDO: My troop leader saw me just looking at the night sky. She helped me understand that there were constellations and there was 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.
Acevedo was trying to get her science badge by launching an Estes model rocket. She had a really hard time getting it off the ground.
ACEVEDO: 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 really inspired of trying to figure out, how do you break gravity’s grip?
How do you break gravity’s grip? This is something Acevedo learned to do, again and again. She started playing basketball even though her parents thought that wasn’t something a girl should be doing, and she got really good. She started playing music and, of course, chose the drums — and, again, she got really good. Acevedo was so frustrated after the family car broke down on a trip that she set about learning auto repair even though she wasn’t old enough to drive. She also started thinking big about her academic future.
ACEVEDO: When I was in fourth grade, my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Baldwin, showed different pictures of colleges across America. And I’m in the Chihuahuan Desert, one of the driest and most arid deserts.
One of the pictures Mrs. Baldwin showed was of Stanford University.
ACEVEDO: So you see these green, verdant hills and the limestone buildings with the red tile roof, and I did blurt out, “I want to go there.”
She would go on to Stanford, for graduate school, but first there were some other hurdles. Like the high-school college counselor:
ACEVEDO: 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. But that didn’t mean she was right in saying what she said. But by that time, that was just my first no. 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.
At the time, around one percent of undergraduate engineering degrees were earned by women.
ACEVEDO: So I went to New Mexico State University and I became an industrial engineer, a systems engineer, and my first job out of college was as a rocket scientist at NASA’s J.P.L.
DUBNER: I think when a lot of people would hear a story like that, about your counselor telling you that girls like you don’t go to college, it’s so insulting. And I think that most people when they hear that story, if they put themselves in that position, they would imagine themselves responding with anger or hurt or resentment. And you sound and appear to be the kind of person who was able to let that kind of thing roll off you. And then get to the next level, keep pushing for your goal. I’m really curious whether you think that ability is your natural characteristic, whether you learned that, if it was hard to learn, and really 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?
ACEVEDO: Yeah, that’s a great question and 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 the problem they’re also trying to solve. I know 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. It took months and there was just always some excuse why it wasn’t a fit.
I kept trying to figure out so, how do I get this so that they can’t say no? And I love numbers. 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.
I got that five minutes with that really busy sales V.P. And I flipped through the presentation, and he looked at that. He’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is really great.” He went to grab it. And he said, “Well, can’t I have it?” And I said— put my hand on it and I said, “Yeah, you can, but it comes with me.” And I finally got the job.
Considering her early fascination with the night sky, and with rockets, and with science generally, you might be surprised that Acevedo didn’t stay at J.P.L., NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, or return there after she got her graduate degree. I asked her why not.
ACEVEDO: The thing was, 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 was able to work right when Voyager 2 was doing its flyby of Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa, and I got to do a lot of data analysis and actually create algorithms around that, of all the data that was coming back from the telemetry devices. Then the other project was Solar Polar Solar Probe, where we were planning to send a spacecraft to the sun.
The “Solar Polar” project had been conceived in the late 1950s. Acevedo worked at JPL in 1979 — but the mission still had a long way to go. The science itself fascinated her.
ACEVEDO: You had to think about all these different things that were going to happen. And even some of the material to handle the radiation — obviously the heat, the temperature fluctuations, asteroids hitting — some of the material or the ceramics hadn’t even been created yet.
But the timetable of the project was a problem.
ACEVEDO: And I realized it was going to be not just months, not just years, it could be decades before the next great event happened.
Indeed: Solar Polar, later renamed the Parker Solar Probe, was finally launched last year, in 2018. Acevedo had not been interested in waiting it out. So she got that graduate degree in engineering from Stanford.
ACEVEDO: 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.
Over the next few decades, Acevedo worked for Apple, Dell, Autodesk — and, in her first job, I.B.M.
ACEVEDO: When I worked at I.B.M., we were creating the state-of-the-art storage devices. And I brought an innovation lens to it. Instead of just doing it the way everybody did it, I took a step back, and I thought, what could we do to make this an improved experience for the workers as well as improve our manufacturing output?
Well, I did that with a few projects and manufacturing outcomes went up. So the results were so good that I was given this amazing plum assignment to help design their brand-new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.
Working at I.B.M., I noticed that men would have this way of coaching each other and networking with each other. And I saw that the few women that were there, we weren’t doing that. And no one was doing that for us. So I went to my boss and I said, what will it take to get promoted, to get to these other levels? And he looked at me like, “What?” You know, “What are you thinking, of doing that?’ And he couldn’t even imagine that.
And I said, “Well, let’s just make it a hypothetical. If you were wanting to be that, what would you have to do?” And he said, “You’d have to have sales experience, product, all this experience.” And that was the ticket. And I thought, “Okay, I want to do that.” And so at that point I applied and got accepted into the I.B.M. sales program. And then I just went checking the box. And kept working on getting myself into these other types of jobs, product marketing, into having profit-and-loss responsibility as an executive.
Later, at Autodesk, Acevedo worked under Carol Bartz, one of the few female C.E.O.’s in tech.
ACEVEDO: Well, it was really a different dynamic to have a female C.E.O. And there were— I counted 36 people that had 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 the only way you can get promoted?” And I remember thinking, “Holy cow, there’s 35 of you. And there’s me and Carol.”
DUBNER: Were there more females hired over time in senior positions there?
ACEVEDO: Yes. Absolutely, she did. Carol was really good about making sure that we looked high and low for the right talent and not just saying, you’ve just looked within your networks. But really going to different areas.
DUBNER: There’s research — I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, what’s called the “queen-bee syndrome” in which, in corporate settings and institutional settings, powerful women tend to be harder on female subordinates than on male subordinates. And I’m curious to know, whether from your personal experience or observation — if you’ve seen that, if you believe that research, and, if so, maybe what to do about it?
ACEVEDO: I’d always heard about that anecdotally, and I know that — I mean, myself in my career, I always tried to treat others the way I wanted to be treated. So I always made sure that we created opportunities for others. And that’s that Girl Scout maxim, “Always leave your campground better than you found it.” When you look at Girl Scouts and we’re a girl-only environment, we really try to make sure that girls learn about collaboration, teamwork, ethics, working well with others.
DUBNER: 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 discrepancy. So what’s your position?
ACEVEDO: In technology, one of the things I would do when I took over a 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 her 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. She was one of many examples. That was probably the most extreme.
But 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 — 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.
But at Girl Scouts, one of the things we’re working on is thinking about how do we work to use the power of our purse to help out on that gender pay gap. And making sure we’re working with partners who are committed to same job, same pay. And committed to having at least 30 percent female leadership.
DUBNER: So you were on the board of Girl Scouts of the United States of America for several years and then you became interim C.E.O. and then C.E.O. a couple of years ago. When you took over, 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?
ACEVEDO: One of the things about being on the board is you’re strategy and governance, you’re not in operational execution. And me being a technology executive, I was always in my head playing all these scenarios, “What would I do?” 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. 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. So we have a scale that’s unmatched. And right now we’re using that to create the workforce of the future.
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With her engineering background, and a long career in tech firms (and a little bit of rocket science thrown in), you can see why Sylvia Acevedo was an appealing choice to run the Girl Scouts. Its mission is essentially to empower girls to succeed in life. 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 determined to at least turn some no’s into yes’s.
ACEVEDO: So you just have to keep taking away the objections.
To that end, the Girl Scouts have been adding a lot of badges and programs that promote STEM learning: science, technology, engineering, and math.
ACEVEDO: There’s things like 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, it’s just really great.
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. And our cybersecurity in particular has been massively successful. In our first eight months, over 75,000 badges have been earned. And that’s just girls five to 10 — our older girls’ cyber badges are coming out. And that’s because we really have a team. We have psychologists on staff, we have Ph.D.’s, academics, as well as practitioners in the field, but then we put it in a way that girls learn and lead really well.
So people say, how do you in cybersecurity teach girls about malware and networking? If you looked at the standard ways, people are saying, “Well, networking, the physical layer, it’s a 7-stack protocol, and the first layer is the physical.” I can tell you, seven- and eight-year-old girls are checked out.
DUBNER: In their defense, I checked out as well.
ACEVEDO: Okay. But now what we do, you’re a seven- or eight-year-old girl, so we ask you to sit in a circle and talk with your friends. Do you think they’re going to do that? Absolutely. And then we give them a ball of yarn and they pass the yarn to one another as they’re speaking. And in a few minutes they’re able to see a physical network. And they’re able to see how maybe Sally didn’t talk to Sara, but they both talked to Elizabeth, who had a virus, and that’s how the virus got spread. And you see that in a way that is incredibly relevant to them.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about the economics of Girl Scout cookies. So from what I see on the most recent Form 990 tax return the Girl Scouts filed, total revenues for the organization was just over $130 million. But Girl Scout cookie revenues, I understand, do not flow to the central organization, is that true?
ACEVEDO: That is true. When you’re buying Girl Scout cookies, you are supporting that local girl and that local council. All your money stays local.
DUBNER: Okay, so I’ve read reports that annual cookie revenues are in the neighborhood of $700 to $800 million? Is that roughly accurate?
ACEVEDO: That is correct. We are the second-largest cookie business in America. Second only to Oreo.
DUBNER: Who makes your cookies?
ACEVEDO: We have two different bakers. One is called the A.B.C. and the other one is Little Brownie Baker. One of them is more of a contract maker, A.B.C., but Little Brownie Baker used to be owned by Kellogg’s but it’s in the process of being sold.
DUBNER: It sounds as though the cookie program is really a very, very key component of Girl Scouts. Both for entrepreneurial and goal-setting and financial purposes within the Girl Scouts.
ACEVEDO: Yes. So one of the reasons that we have been able to thrive for over 100 years is, Julia Gordon Low, when she 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. Because the cookie program did fund our growth and funds and supports the organization. Now in terms of the money staying local — a percentage, and that varies per council, of dollars stay within the troops so that the girls can use their cookie cash for different programs.
DUBNER: Let’s say I really wanted to rain on your parade and say I’m all in favor of female accomplishment, of female entrepreneurship, etc. But I’m a little uncomfortable in this day of poor health and obesity, that the foundation of the Girl Scouts’ financial mountain is built on cookies, which are both very sugary and fattening. And again I admit I’m raining on a parade, I’m being as devilish an advocate as I could possibly be. But let’s say I say that. What do you say to that?
ACEVEDO: The thing is, it’s once a year. It’s an indulgence. Our cookie portions have remained small. We don’t have these gigantic cookies. And what you’re doing, your dollar is going to really create a female entrepreneur. You’re teaching girls money skills, business skills, management skills, customer, business, ethics skills. And this is a girl’s first business. And we only offer that once a year, three months a year.
DUBNER: I wondered about the once-a-year factor as well. You know, scarcity is a powerful force, and it tends to drive demand, but it also may leave opportunity or money on the table. I’m really curious about the organization’s attitude toward either lengthening the selling time or maybe there would be two or three seasons a year? Because it’s hard for me to imagine that an organization could oversee an operation that is so successful and so profitable and not want to say, “Hey, if we did it twice a year, we could bring in maybe 2x or 1.8x the money.” What’s your position on that?
ACEVEDO: You are really thinking like a for-profit business. We’re really focused on the girl. And the cookie program is really to teach her these really great business skills and also to provide the funding for the organization.
The Girl Scouts are often held up as an example of a successful “social enterprise nonprofit,” or what you might call a nonprofit with a for-profit arm. This does not, of course, entirely shield it from competition. In 2003, the Girls Scouts had nearly 3 million youth members, along with just under a million adult volunteers. They’ve since fallen to below 2 million youth members. Some competition, lately, has come from the Boy Scouts.
DUBNER: Okay. The Girl Scouts’ relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. How would you describe that relationship? One word for starters.
DUBNER: Okay. I understand that the Girl Scouts are presently suing the Boy Scouts, yes? Can you give us the background on that?
ACEVEDO: Sure. They made a change in their policy and decided to accept girls. But we are the owners, intellectual-property owners, trademark owners of Girl Scouts. The phrase “Girl Scouts.” So you cannot call people in that organization, females in that organization, “girl scouts.” We are the Girl Scouts.
DUBNER: So let’s just back up. The Boy Scouts began to admit female scouts, correct? Is that essentially what triggered this contentious moment?
ACEVEDO: Yeah. They decided to open up their membership to girls.
DUBNER: Did your organization approach them and try to have amicable discussions about how to work this out? Or did it quickly get to the lawyers?
ACEVEDO: They told us that they were making that decision. So it wasn’t bringing us in. They just said, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” And then we would share with them that there were all these instances of people calling females in their organization “girl scouts,” and that is our organization.
DUBNER: 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?
ACEVEDO: 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 to create a program that works for them, that is designed around the way girls learn and lead. And that’s really what we’re experts in.
DUBNER: I’m really curious, your thoughts on same-sex education generally. A lot of great women’s-only colleges have, over the past 40 or 50 years, become coed. I know the research on same-sex education is 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?
ACEVEDO: I know that historically what you’re talking about at the college level is certainly true, there’s fewer of them. But I used to live in Texas. In Austin, Texas. And across the state there is just a huge growth in the number of all-girls public schools. So I really saw that big increase.
We live in a coed world, but we are talking about girls, we work with girls five 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.
DUBNER: So I’m guessing that the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. will not ever accept boys.
ACEVEDO: Just like any good business, you focus on what you do well and what we are are experts in how girls learn and lead.
DUBNER: I’m curious to know about the Girl Scouts’ policy, I guess, on policy. I can think of a number of issues that are in the news today, that a female organization would have a particular take on, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s abortion, and so on. What is the official position on politics and policy, and the endorsement of candidates and things like that?
ACEVEDO: We’re a nonpartisan organization. We exist for the girls. So we don’t tell girls what to value, what to think. So a couple of years ago, when there were a lot of parades, and a lot of different things, people said, “Hey, Girl Scouts, you need to be in the middle of that.” And we were like, “No.”
What we did do is we realized what people want is change, especially change in policies and in politics and we 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.
DUBNER: So let’s say I’m a Girl Scout troop, and I decide that, for instance, Elizabeth Warren, I think is a great presidential candidate. And I want to participate and help in campaign events for Elizabeth Warren and I want all of our girls to go in their Scout uniforms. Allowed or no?
ACEVEDO: So what we encourage people is to— we really encourage you to get out the vote. We encourage you to encourage people to go out and vote. But as a Girl Scout, endorsed as a Girl Scout, that’s not what our organization is about.
DUBNER: It seems as though the line between what’s political and what’s not political is much, much blurrier these days than it used to be. And I’m just curious whether that line is a little bit harder to navigate for the Girl Scouts than it might have been 20, 30, 50 years ago.
ACEVEDO: You know, there are always people trying to push us one way or the other. It’s interesting. I can be in one part of the country and say our message, exactly, and people will say “Oh my God, you are from New York. You are so liberal.” I can then take that exact same message, go to another part of country, and, “Oh my God. You guys are just so conservative. Get with the times, Girl Scouts.”
DUBNER: Okay. Thank you so much, it was great to speak with you.
ACEVEDO: It was wonderful. I really enjoyed it. And keep buying Girl Scout cookies.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Daphne Chen. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Sylvia Acevedo, author, entrepreneur, and C.E.O. of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.
- “Closing the Tech Gender Gap Through Philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility,” by Michael Conway, Kweilin Ellingrud, Tracy Nowski, and Renee Wittemyer (McKinsey & Company, 2018).
- “Giving to Women and Girls: Who Gives, and Why?” (I.U.P.U.I. Women’s Philanthropy Institute, 2016).
- Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist, by Sylvia Acevedo.