What makes the difference between a girl and a woman?
“Girl Scouts,” cheered Anna Maria Chavez, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of the USA and the first Latina to lead the organization.
The new CEO was recently in New York City to celebrate National Girl Scout Cookie Day, the largest business run exclusively by girls and the volunteers that support them. The $790 million cookie program proceeds are used to train girls in five leadership skills: Goal setting, decision making, money management, business ethics and people skills. Among several media presentations, Chavez was also invited to ring NASDAQ’s Closing Bell.
The organization that last year celebrated its 100 years of existence is a lifeline for 2.3 million girl members and 890,000 adult members who work primarily as volunteers helping them achieve their dreams in education, community service and leadership. When most people still relate Girl Scouts to selling cookies and going camping, this widely recognized non-profit has turned its direction to strengthening girls’ role in society, especially now—and more than ever—when women are being pressured to compete in every position, career and industry.
Anna Maria Chavez’s election came at a crucial time of this centennial organization when the need to reinvent its vision had already started.
“I was very excited about this opportunity because I had been working at a grassroots level in Texas creating leadership programs since 2009.” Chavez’ impressive leadership track record in state and federal government as well as her work within the organization brought a timely influence in the non-profit’s remarkable transformation.
Anna Maria Chavez: Beginnings
“I’m a product of this organization. As a little girl in Arizona, none of the women in my family had a cultural connection with Girl Scouts but the opportunity resonated with my mother as a platform that would allow me to excel in school,” she told VOXXI in an exclusive interview.
Chavez was raised in a Mexican-American family in the small town of Eloy, Ariz., before her family moved to Phoenix.
In her adult life, she always had the organization in mind. Trying to understand the aspirations of girls like herself, whose opportunities might be limited or who might find barriers and obstacles to their education, Chavez did research in areas where population growth trends were present.
“While working in Arizona, I asked demographers to research areas where growth trends would sample the future of the nation. We looked for regions were great diversity and interesting developments were taking place, and we found it in San Antonio, Texas,” she shared. “The Texan city was an example of cultural diversity, close to the Mexican border, with important colleges and universities and a major military installation with dynamic local and international business activity.”
The award-winning leader put her eyes on the task, picturing the life of girls in a region where 50 percent of the population is of Latino origin. In 2009 she was named chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas. During her tenure, she worked at a grassroots level creating opportunities to open up for girls in the region.
“Girl Scouting happens locally and the first changes were tested at the council level. When I was elected to the national movement, I continued to change Girl Scouts into a dynamic organization that would support girls into these new and very demanding roles without abandoning our original vision,” Chavez said.
Anna Maria Chavez on influence of Girl Scouts in Latino youth
The organization has increased its influence among Hispanic girls who, like Anna Maria Chavez, seek support to overcome cultural and educational barriers. In the past 10 years, the nonprofit has seen a 55 percent increase of Latino girls in its ranks, about 12 percent of its total membership.
With over 5.7 million Hispanic girls between five and 17 years old, and Latina business owners being the fastest growing segment in the United States, it is not difficult to connect the dots. Latinas are determined to lead and are looking for opportunities to stand up to the task. “It’s staggering to think what they might achieve; they might be innovators or create products or breakthroughs in different industries,” Chavez said. “We have conducted studies at Girl Scouts showing that Hispanic and African American girls carry what we call the ‘resilience factor.’ They are more prepared to face challenges because they had to overcome barriers all their lives.”
The national leader sustains that these minority girls have suffered throughout their lives from being qualified as “not fast or smart enough” or not culturally prepared to excel so they make an extra effort to succeed. “They have built up confidence that allows them to deal with the pressure of leadership and tough decisions in ways that Caucasian girls sometimes are not prepared to do,” Chavez shared.
The study found that being a leader is important to 66 percent of Latinas compared to 49 percent of Caucasian girls and 90 percent of them want to be some sort of leader who “stands up for her beliefs and values, brings people together to get things done and tries to change the world for the better.”
Although women have been culturally prepared to avoid careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—accounting for only 20 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees—Girl Scout’s research found in another study that a vast majority of teenage girls including Latinas expressed strong incline for these fields.
“Studies also found that by fourth grade, girls have a great amount of self confidence but after these years, their aptitude for leadership decreases due to the constant negative messages in social media, TV and media in general or through peer pressure about physical and gender stereotypes. Girl Scouts create a safe environment where they can build up their confidence, fail, build up again and not be ridiculed or put down. They can find their own paths and work with other girls at their own pace,” Chavez affirmed.
“Now think of those nearly six million young Latinas. They are the future of this country, and they have talent and aspirations but they need our support in helping them develop self-confidence and leadership skills so they can realize those dreams,” Chavez said.
From the original Juliet Gordon Low’s vision in 1912, when the first troop in Savannah, Georgia was organized under the Girl Scout’s Promise and Law to “To serve God and country and to help people at all times” to this new vision about developing young women into leaders and visionaries who will change the world for the better, a big leap had shaken the structure of the centennial organization according to the changing reality of women in the new century.
“By inspiring these girls to dream big and helping them to become leaders of their lives, families, communities and businesses, we are fulfilling the promise of our mission,” Chavez concluded.
Originally published on VOXXI as Anna Maria Chavez takes Girl Scouts to leadership