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When Sylvia Acevedo admired the stars as a child at Girl Scout camp, becoming a rocket scientist was nowhere in her sights. Now the NASA alum is the CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, and she credits the organization with sparking her interest in space.
“I looked at [the stars] as shiny objects,” Acevedo recounted. “But my troop leader, she sat next to me and she showed me that there were constellations, there were stars and there were planets,” Acevedo told Know Your Value’s Daniela Pierre-Bravo. In addition, her troop leader convinced her that she had a knack for science — and that confidence put her on a path to lifelong learning.
“Girls like me from southern New Mexico weren’t going to Stanford,” Acevedo said. But she kept taking science and math classes and found that the more she took, the better she got. “I got so good, I got rocket scientist good,” she said. She ended up being one of the first Hispanics to get a graduate engineering degree from the prestigious university. “Had it not been for Girl Scouts, my life would have been completely different,” she said.
Acevedo grew up in near-poverty on a dirt street in New Mexico. Her immigrant parents lived paycheck to paycheck with their son and two daughters. Then, a meningitis outbreak spread through their dirt barrio, taking lives and giving Acevedo’s younger sister a dangerously high fever. The fever passed, but she was left with a developmental disability.
“That was devastating for all of us, but especially my mother,” Acevedo recalled. Her parents moved the family to a part of town with paved streets and no sign of the meningitis epidemic that had threatened their youngest child. There, Acevedo met some girls who invited her into their Girl Scout troop.
“I suddenly became this active, gregarious girl,” Acevedo said. Curious about the change in Acevedo, her mother sat in on a Girl Scout troop meeting — and met the troop leaders who would one day teach her English, show her that she qualified for U.S. citizenship, and help her study for the citizenship test. Acevedo’s mother also formed a Girl Scout troop for developmentally disabled girls at her youngest daughter’s school.
“When my sister put on the Girl Scout uniform, and she was part of the cookie program, it normalized her,” Acevedo said, “and she loved that.”
And while Girl Scouts is famous for its yearly cookie sales (which is a major fundraiser for troops and teaches girls entrepreneurial skills), Acevedo saw a bigger lesson at play.
“You don't know how to create opportunity,” Acevedo said of her upbringing, “because if you did, you wouldn’t be in poverty.” From setting goals to making budgets and practicing customer service, Acevedo said she learned basic business skills, persistence and resilience. She carried this lesson with her for life: “Don’t leave the site of a sale until you’ve heard no three times.”
The lesson came in good use when a boss told her she couldn’t head up Latin American operations at her tech job. “They said ‘no, men won’t want to work with you, with women, [and] it’s not safe,’” she recalled. But Acevedo disagreed, so she booked a trip to Chile and met with business leaders. They sent glowing recommendation letters to her bosses, and she got the job.
“Being Latina, I could speak Spanish, I understood the culture, and had tremendous success,” Acevedo said. In fact, she went on to help other women break into jobs in tech, often meeting with their potential bosses over lunch to vouch for them. “I felt like I opened up the doors of opportunity for many other Latinas to follow.”
That doesn’t mean her own path was without challenges. During a meeting with a venture capitalist, Acevedo remembered being completely ignored, even though she was one of the principals of the company. "They couldn’t even say my name right,” she recalled. “And finally I said, you know, I don’t know how many of you went to Stanford University, got their masters, and also were a rocket scientist at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).” Then she said it dawned on the venture capitalist: “Yes, you’re somebody.”
“When there are very few like you, you have to help them understand and give them a frame of reference,” Acevedo told Pierre-Bravo. She had her own Know Your Value moment while serving on the White House Commission for Educational Excellence.
“I realized when the women spoke, a lot of times their comments didn’t get noted, and then a male colleague would say something and his comments would get noted,” Acevedo said. “So I grabbed some of the women together, and I said, ‘Look, we’re going to start amplifying.’”
She explained to the women on the commission that when another woman gave an idea, she would jump in and say that she liked it. And when somebody took the women’s idea, she would say it was still great — but she really loved it when the woman originally said it. “I knew what we were saying was very important, but it was getting lost,” she said. “That really helped the message get through.”
Acevedo is amplifying her own message via her memoir “Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist,” which is written in English and Spanish at a middle school reading level. Her book encourages girls to take science and math classes to expand their options in a rapidly-changing world.
To that end, Girl Scouts created more than fifty badges in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and launched a study on how girls use technology. They found that girls tend to use it to connect with others, learn new things, and explore the world around them. But despite their abilities, they often have less confidence than boys do.
“That’s something at Girl Scouts that we work [on], especially in technology,” Acevedo said. “A lot of girls feel like, unless I have everything right and I know everything, I’m not going to say I know.’” She’s learned from her own experience that the way forward is to try, fail, and try again.
“That’s how you learn,” she said. “You gain confidence by that ability to try and fail, and eventually, you’ll succeed.”