In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, this episode of Broadband Conversations features Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. She is a longtime advocate for STEM education, engineer, and author of "Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist." In her conversation with Commissioner Rosenworcel, Sylvia how it was her own Girl Scout troop leader who noticed her early interest in space and encouraged her to earn a science badge by building a model rocket. That experience led Sylvia down a path to eventually becoming a rocket scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Listeners will also hear how under Sylvia's leadership Girl Scouts are encouraged to take on science, technology, math, and engineering projects and pursue badges in areas like cybersecurity. In fact, as a result of her efforts, during the past six months over 84,000 Girls Scouts have earned cybersecurity badges.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hey there. I'm Jessica Rosenworcel and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission. Welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where we get to talk to women across the technology, innovation, and media sectors and we get to hear about what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what's next for the future.
For this episode I'm going to put a real emphasis on the future because today I am joined by a woman who is committed to building a better future for every girl. She's a Brownie turned rocket scientist. If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm talking about Sylvia Acevedo, the CEO of the Girl Scouts of America.
I'm going to let her tell you how she went from Girl Scout herself to working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab to leading the largest leadership organization for girls in the world.
First, let me give you just a bit of context. It was way back in 1912 that a woman named Juliette Gordon Low started the first Girl Scout troop. From there the organization has grown to represent 2.6 million members and there are a whole lot of famous folks who used to be Girl Scouts including Serena and Venus Williams, Katie Couric, and Taylor Swift.
Get this. 76 percent of female U.S. Senators and over half the women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives are Girl Scout alums. I'm going to add to that. Yours truly used to be a Brownie.
Sylvia, thank you for being here and for all the work you do.
MS. ACEVEDO: Thank you. I'm very honored to be here. Thank you very much.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Your resume is just so impressive; engineer, rocket scientist with NASA, technology expert, author, and now you are the CEO of the Girl Scouts. That is so much for one person, one lifetime. I would love it if you could tell us a little bit of how you got started on this path.
MS. ACEVEDO: Thank you very much. You know, I grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I was born in South Dakota but moved to Las Cruces when I was quite young. My family really struggled with living pay check to pay check, poverty, living with family members sometimes because we didn't have money enough to make ends meet.
Luckily enough for me, I got involved in Girl Scouts and Girl Scouts taught me how to create opportunity. That's so important because when you're living with a family who lives pay check to pay check, you don't know how to create opportunity.
Through the Girl Scout cookie program I learned how to set goals; how to break up the path in terms of achievable steps; how to make business decisions; how to give good customer service. Basically how to make my golden dreams come true.
But in addition to that, Girl Scouts also taught me one of my most important lessons in life which is never walk away from a sale until you've heard no three times. That's so important because it taught me how to overcome objections. It taught me about persistence. It taught me about resilience.
For a girl like me growing up in southern New Mexico at that time who learned through the Girl Scouts program that I liked science because I earned my science badge making Estes rocket and I realized I could do math, I could do science.
Girl Scouts gave me that confidence, gave me that edge so that I took science and math classes and I got really good at it. So good I became a rocket scientist.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow.
MS. ACEVEDO: I'm so grateful that I had that opportunity through Girl Scouts of how to create opportunity, how to make my goals, break my goals up into smaller achievable goals, and make my dreams come true. Then also my love of math and science. I learned to be persistent and resilient so that I could become so good at it I became a rocket scientist.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ah, that's such a good story. What an ode to the Girl Scouts.
Now, you mentioned this interest in math in science so where did that really come from? What were you doing in southern New Mexico that got you so interested in space and rockets? Was it in school or was it elsewhere?
MS. ACEVEDO: So what happened there was I was on a camping trip with Girl Scouts and it was the first camping trip I was on. I had just finished eating my first S'mores so I think I was in sugar ecstasy.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Everyone remembers the first time you had that combination. It's so good.
MS. ACEVEDO: Yes. And I was sitting looking at the stars in New Mexico, and there's a lot of stars. My troop leader saw me and she sat next to me and she started pointing out the constellations and which were planets and which were stars. That was such a new experience for me. I kind of thought they were just twinkling lights up there, right? I didn't know there were systems, constellations, planets.
She remembered that conversation so that later on when we were earning badges and I wanted to earn a cooking badge, because all my friends were earning cooking badges and I wanted to be like my friends, she encouraged me to also earn my science badge.
She remembered me looking at the stars so she said, "Why don't you do something around space?" To earn my science badge, I made an Estes rocket and it took me trial and error to finally get that to break gravity's grip and pierce the beautiful blue New Mexico sky.
It took me awhile to do that but in that process I learned a few things. One, how to problem solve, how to troubleshoot.
Also, cooking was a lot like the rocket experience. First you had to read directions. You had to get the ingredients or the chemicals right. You had to get the sequencing right. You also had to get the heat source right. By doing that then you could have success.
I realized I could do this. That was a really important moment because there was so much in society that was not really focusing girls on science, technology, engineering, and math. Yet, I realized I like science and I can do so I started taking more science and math.
When you do something and you like it, you get better at it because you do it more. Then because you do it more you get even better. I had this virtual circle. I used to do not just the odd problems but the even problems. I would do the unassigned problems that the teacher gave me.
So I got really good at math. I got rocket scientist good at math. I could really pin that back to that moment in Girl Scouts when my troop leader saw me looking at the stars.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow. I love that image of you looking at the stars in New Mexico. What is even neater is I know that you've written a book and you did title it "Path to the Stars." I feel like it all goes back to the same story.
Now, I also know that you wrote that book primarily for middle school aged readers. I'm wondering why you did that and why you wanted to focus on those years and those readers and kids of that age?
MS. ACEVEDO: So, you know, I think of it as you know when you see an elevator door closing and you stick your hand or your purse in there and the --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my gosh, every day. I know exactly what you're talking about. You always hope that it has that sensor.
MS. ACEVEDO: Right. So I feel like my book is that for girls in middle school, or youth in middle school. It's kind of that last moment that you can really affect the trajectory of their life because if they study science and math today and get at least confident in it, or at least confidence around it, there will be a world of opportunities for careers for them.
But if you don't have a modicum of math and science, then the amount of opportunities in terms of careers that are going to be available to you in the 21st century is significantly reduced.
I saw this moment, this book, as being the literal hand or book in the doors, stopping those elevator doors, like, "Wait." You know, science and math can be fun and it can not only open up the world of opportunity, it can develop your potential.
When I think about myself, my potential was so developed because of my interest in science and math and I've been able to have this amazing life because of that. So I wrote that book for middle school to give those readers that opportunity that they can have hope, that they can have a life of their dreams.
This was my path to the stars and I wanted to give them hope that they can have a life of their dreams as well.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That metaphor makes so much sense because so much of our life is digital and we want to figure out how so many more people can participate. Not just as consumers but as creators.
I know the Girl Scouts with your leadership has had a really revived focus on science, technology, engineering, and math fields. I'm sure that's part and parcel with your background and the kind of things that you wrote in your book.
How about you talk a little bit about the kinds of projects and badges that you've actually encouraged Girl Scouts to take on?
MS. ACEVEDO: I'm really excited about that. In the last three years we've had 100 new badges come out, many of them focused on STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math, and the great outdoors. We did that because we needed to be relevant to girls.
The world is changing very rapidly around digital technology. As you mentioned, we don't want girls just to be users. We want them to be the creators, the inventors, the designers. There is a world being rewritten around us line by line, algorithm by algorithm.
Girls are typically not including and we want to make sure that they are included in the way products are developed, are rolled out, are considered because they are going to be in everything. They are going to be in our professional life, our personal life. My goodness, they are surrounding us in our homes as well.
What I love about our programs is, yes, we did things like robotics and STEM and math and coding and design thinking, but as we were doing focus groups with girls to see what else they wanted, that's when they said, "We want to know more about cyber security."
They want to know more about how you protect your digital life, your digital existence.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my gosh. That's so important.
MS. ACEVEDO: It is so important and our reception has been phenomenal in the last six months. In the first six months of our digital cyber security badges, we have over 84,000 badges being earned on cyber security. These are just ages five to 10. We are now rolling out the older girl badges from 11 to 18.
That means there's 20,000 plus Daisies, 20,000 plus Brownies, 20,000 plus Juniors that are learning about cyber security. What I love is that parents reach out to me on social media and say, "My daughter came home and said, `Mom, Dad, what is the protocol for our wifi protections and our passwords?'" And they are like, "Uh?"
Their daughters are learning how to protect their passwords, how to protect their family's information, their information, how to track whether something is accurate or somebody is doing malware or a spam. We're really teaching them very relevant skills. We're teaching them about networking and how viruses get passed.
You know, I find that parents say to us, "I'm so glad that you're doing this." Even our home environment from our garage doors to our refrigerators to our washers and dryers, to even our thermostats are all controlled digitally.
One woman said to me she doesn't like that she doesn't feel confident around technology because it makes her feel inadequate. One day there was severe weather and her thermostat wasn't working and there was nothing she could do.
There was no button to push. It wasn't working so her home got incredibly cold. No parent wants to feel inadequate like they can't keep their family warm. When her daughter woke up and she said the thermostat is not working, the daughter goes, "Oh, Mom, just reboot the router." They did and the thermostat came to life and the heater came to life.
The mom said, "I'm just so grateful for what she's learning that is so practical in Girl Scouts." The world is really moving to be a digital world and a digital environment and we want them to not just only have the interest but the confidence to be able to manage that world and to see themselves in it.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: What a great story. I mean, we see that here every day because at the FCC we think about connecting everything in the world around us and the internet of things, but with all that connectivity and opportunity comes all sorts of security challenges.
The idea that girls can earn a badge in Girl Scouts to start figuring out how to address those problems, look, you're doing an incredible service not just for household security but for national security by making them all so competent. That's terrific.
MS. ACEVEDO: Thank you for saying that. One of the things I love about Girl Scouts is that we really ask our girls to take action. You just don't earn a badge. You have to show that you have taken action with the skill that you have learned.
One of the things I'm hearing all across the country with our girls that are five all the way to age nine, once they're earning these cyber badges, they are thinking, "How can I take action?"
Across America they are going to senior centers and they are teaching seniors how to make sure their wifi passwords are protected, that they don't have an open network. If they have a mobile device, how to make sure that they have privacy settings set. I love that because they are taking action in a way to make their community safer.
But we also have some girls that have taken it even a further step and they live in the agricultural areas of America. I don't know if you know but even our tractors and combines are run by sensors.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know.
MS. ACEVEDO: They don't even have steering wheels.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: They are so sophisticated.
MS. ACEVEDO: The girls are working on projects like what is the sustainability of our food supply when the internet of things gets hacked and our tractors and combines aren't useful. Wow. That's because a girl has learned about cyber security and she's also learned through Girl Scouts how do you make the world a better place, how do you protect your community.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my gosh. You're blowing my mind in such a big way the kind of things these girls are taking on. I mean, it's real preparation for the digital future.
MS. ACEVEDO: Well, yeah. You know, just on another note in terms of civics, in Girl Scouts, we also are releasing additional badges on civics so we are doubling the number of civics badges. We are the only major youth nonprofit that has civics programs from age five to 18, which is why 60 percent of the women in Congress were Girl Scouts, or half of all female elected officials in America were Girl Scouts.
Here is how it ties into cyber security which is back to your national security issue. We also teach girls about the love of country and patriotism.
It's no surprise that many of our girls since they are learning about cyber security they are immediately pivoting to think about how do I protect my home, my school, my community, our financial systems, our water supply, our electrical grid and, yes, even our voting system. We've got girls who are thinking about how do we do that. I love how that confluence has happened between civics and also STEM.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. So you've gone from cyber security to community to country. I'm going to take you to cookies because you knew this was not going to end without me asking.
But I want to go beyond talking about my love for Thin Mints and my capacity to digest a full sleeve in one sitting, to talking about what you brought up at the start, which is selling cookies is pitching an idea, walking up to someone and saying, "I have something to offer and I'm going to ask you to listen." That is such an important skill.
I'm sure you've been in rooms like me where there just aren't enough women at the table. We might be the only ones, especially when it comes to technology. I'm trying to think about that experience and that tradition of cookie sales and what does that mean when you think about Girl Scouts and preparing them for the future?
MS. ACEVEDO: The iconic cookie program has launched so many entrepreneurs and also business leaders across America. I go and meet with business executives and I will say they all tell me, "You know, I got my start selling Girl Scout cookies."
I was out at Silicon Valley and I realized that 80 percent of the female tech leaders I was meeting that were born in the U.S. were all Girl Scouts. There is a very high correlation and it starts with the cookie program.
You set goals, you learn business ethics, you learn about good customer service, you learn about decision making, goal setting. Those are invaluable skills. As you mentioned, it's also pitching an idea. I like to say the three nos.
I grew up in a culture where children were not suppose to speak first. They were suppose to listen and only speak when an adult spoke to them. That's really hard to do when you're trying to make your goal selling cookies.
That concept of when somebody says no, how do you get around that? How do you pitch it and change your pitch until you finally get to a yes. That was just an invaluable experience that helped me at a very young age in elementary school to get over that no so I could make my cookie goals.
Then in high school when my college counselor told me I couldn't go to college because girls like me didn't go to college, you know, to me she was just the first no. I walked into her office and she followed me. Then she said, "Well, okay. What do you want to study?" I said, "Engineering," and she laughed. She said, "Girls aren't engineers."
That was my second no. Right? I didn't let that deter me. That was a skill that I first learned through the cookie program. There are so many women who I meet today and they tell me, "Did you know I was the top cookie seller in my region?" I'm not surprised. You're the CEO of a big company. I'm not surprised you were also the top cookie seller when you were a kid.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So grit and Girl Scout cookies, they go together. That's how you put it.
MS. ACEVEDO: Absolutely.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, before I let you go, there are a few questions I like to ask everyone at the end of our conversation. It's really a quick take and survey on how you use the internet.
The first question is this. What was the first thing that you remember doing on the internet or online?
MS. ACEVEDO: Message boards.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
MS. ACEVEDO: For communicating. Message boards.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Were you someone who was just combing through and looking at what was said or were you someone who was contributing?
MS. ACEVEDO: Oh, I was a contributor.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Awesome. Of course, you were a Girl Scout. Now, what was the last thing you did on the internet no matter how mundane.
MS. ACEVEDO: So, you know, I think it falls into the bucket of maybe some research or correspondence either through social media or email. Then also catching up on the news.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. So now the big question. What do you think the future of the internet and digital life looks like?
MS. ACEVEDO: I think about this all the time and that's why we have so many programs for Girl Scouts that are with digital and STEM. The world is being remade line by line, code by code.
A lot of times girls and women have not been at the table and we need to make sure that they're at the table when these decisions are being made, or they are shaping the solutions themselves so you're going to see an increase of women who are Girl Scouts who are going to be starting new companies, who are going to be designing code, and who are going to be making changes to the status quo that exist.
Especially around privacy. I mean, we've allowed a lot of technology to know so much about behavioral data and we've given that right for ourselves and also for our children which has often been a personal safety issue for families.
I think a lot of women want to put that genie back in the bottle so you're going to see some big changes as more women get involved or who have the skills to do the designing, the coding, the entrepreneurship. You're going to see others who will emerge and I'm very excited about that.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I like your excitement. I like the way that you put all of that. Especially, as you said, line by line, code by code the world changing around us. Those are words to remember.
Now, where can folks keep up to date with what you're doing? In other words, where can they reach out to you or watch you online?
MS. ACEVEDO: Okay. You know, you can follow me on Twitter #sylviaacevedo, or on Instragram. It's also my middle name which is Sylvia Elia Acevedo. Through Girl Scouts you can find me and I also have a website SylviaAcevedo.org. Or just look in your internet browser and I come up very high on the search engine.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love that.
MS. ACEVEDO: Every day we are really focused on how do we get more girls of courage, confidence, and character who are focused on making the world a better place and making sure they have the right skills so that they can effect the change they want to see in the world.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Thank you.
That wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Sylvia, I'm so glad you were able to join us today.
Thank you to everyone for listening. Take care.