Leadership

How the Girl Scouts' new CEO is using her time at NASA and Apple to promote STEM education

What started as simply stargazing with her Girl Scouts troop as a 7-year-old in New Mexico has since turned into a career at NASA, IBM, Apple and Dell for Sylvia Acevedo.

Most recently, in May, she was named the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, the organization she belonged to growing up. Her mission: to ensure STEM learning is a part of every young woman's life.

"I had an 'aha' moment when I was a young girl and my troop leader saw me looking at the stars," Acevedo tells CNBC Make It.

"Later on, when we were choosing our badges, she encouraged me to get my science badge," she recalls. And the rest is history.

Despite being one of the few girls in her science and math classes through grade school, Acevedo says she was "able to persist" because she realized she was both interested and good at the subjects.

"Girl Scouts gave me that early confidence of being competent to talk about money, talk about what I deserve and not taking no for an answer." -Sylvia Acevedo, Girl Scouts CEO

But it wasn't easy to pursue this passion: When Acevedo told her high school guidance counselor she wanted to go to college and become an engineer, she wasn't taken seriously. "Girls like you don't go to college," Acevedo recalls her counselor saying, laughing and adding, "girls aren't engineers."

Acevedo responded with what she calls her "Girl Scout confidence": "If I can cook, I can be an engineer."

After getting her bachelor's degree in engineering at New Mexico State University, Acevedo landed her first job as a rocket scientist at NASA. She developed algorithm programs and analyzed data for the Voyager space program in 1979.

When she learned it would take decades for NASA to develop the right materials for the next Solar Probe mission to get close to the sun, she left to attend graduate school.

Acevedo at her college graduation.
Acevedo at her college graduation.

Acevedo was one of the first Hispanic students to earn a Master's degree in engineering from Stanford University, but to afford it, she simultaneously worked at IBM as an engineer.

Next, Acevedo worked at Apple where she used her experience selling Girl Scouts cookies to boost the company's sales. As an executive there, she gathered data to prove why she should work in Asia Pacific.

Instead, her colleagues wanted the information she had pulled but not give her chance at the job abroad. "I just grabbed the presentation and I said, 'If you want this data and this information, it comes with me' and so they ended up having to hire me," Acevedo says.

"Girl Scouts gave me that early confidence of being competent to talk about money, talk about what I deserve and not taking no for an answer," she adds.

Today, Acevedo is using her work experience to address the lack of exposure girls have to science, technology, engineering and math. In fact, the organization launched 23 new STEM and outdoor-focused badges last month to encourage more girls to build their skills in these fields, according to a release.

With examples like the carpenter's badge, the electrician's and outdoor badges, Acevedo says the Girl Scouts have always had a STEM focus but hadn't called it that in the past. She notes it's time to make girls more confident in developing these skills, which has prompted the organization to unveil the many new badges.

The organization also works with the Society of Women Engineers, Code.org, Netflix and many others to create programming for the girls.

She adds earning these badges will give Girl Scouts a "sense of accomplishment" that will help close the gender gap in STEM. "There's no way that we're going to close that gap in the United States," she says, "without tapping into the great resources of girls and young women."

"That's something that we really are focusing on, the U.S. needs to have a STEM-ready workforce," Acevedo says. "We are not just doing it for the girls, we're doing it for America."

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