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Girl Scouts acting CEO explains why the charity is more than the sum of its cookies

Girl Scouts have been selling cookies for 100 years, and in 2017 alone, 200 million boxes will be bought.

Yet according to the organization's top leader, those delicious treats come with a very serious purpose—and themselves represent big money.

"We have an $850 million dollar business," Sylvia Acevedo, Girl Scouts of USA interim CEO told CNBC's "On the Money" recently. She added the cookie program, in which she herself once participated, is a marketing training ground for young women.

"It teaches them the kind of life skills they need to be an entrepreneur. Teaches them how to set goals, create budgets and figure out how you're going to serve your customers," Acevedo said—in other words, real world business skills.

Fledgling young entrepreneurial Girl Scouts learn "how to make change, they're learning how to ask for the order, they're learning how to set budgets," the CEO said. "They create projects and then they have to figure out how am I going to fund the project? And that is all financial management."

She also said that money remains local, rather than going to the national headquarters. The cash funding "is what allows girls to have these amazing outdoors experiences, to have those outdoor camps or to have those "take action" projects in their own community."

Creating your own opportunity

Girl Scouts raise price of cookies to $5.
Getty Images
Girl Scouts raise price of cookies to $5.

Acevedo recalled that her own cookie selling experience "taught me that you can create your own opportunity." Although she's only been interim CEO since June, the organization has been part of nearly her whole life, since she was a Brownie. "I was 7 yrs. old when I started," Acevedo said.

Growing up in southern New Mexico, Acevedo was always looking up at the stars. Her scout leader noticed her interest in space, and encouraged her to build and launch a model rocket. "It took a few times, but through trial and error" she succeeded, Acevedo told CNBC. It helped change her outlook.

"My troop leader saw my potential and she was somebody outside of my family, an adult who helped me see opportunities beyond what was available in my tight-knit family," she said. "She saw that I could be a scientist and she encouraged me to earn my science badge."

From there, Acevedo earned engineering degrees at New Mexico State University, followed by Stanford University. Her career as a rocket scientist began at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Following executive roles at companies including Apple, IBM and Dell Computer, she was also founder and CEO of marketing firm, CommuniCard.

Girl Scout Cookie Program
Source: Girl Scouts of the USA

Girl Scouts have been around since the first troop organized in Savannah, Georgia in 1912. Today's Girl Scouts has 2.7 million members: 1.9 million girls (Kindergarten through 12th grade) and 800 thousand adults.

Still, the charity has faced its share of challenges in recent years, including a loss of membership and softening donations.

While acknowledging the organization's problems, Acevedo said Girl Scouts is "really excited about things that we're doing. We're starting to change those numbers. We're seeing our volunteer numbers turn around and they're positive. Our retention numbers are up."

She points to an emphasis on STEM education, and incorporating technology into Girl Scout activities. "We're putting in a digital backbone so we can be where girls are on mobile devices.
We're making sure we're giving girls the programs they need and want."

However, traditional Girl Scout activities, like camping, hiking, canoeing and archery, remain important.

"We're never going to get away from that face-to-face, in-person outdoor experiences that girls love and that they want in girl scouting," Acevedo stated. She called it part of "the essence" of what Girl Scouts build: "Courage, confidence and character."

On the Money airs on CNBC Saturday at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.