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Skills & Diversity: Advice to Businesses from the Former CEO of the Girl Scouts - A Conversation with Sylvia Acevedo

Join Credly CEO Jonathan Finkelstein for a series of conversations with people advancing change that leads to a better and more equitable future of work. Meet change-makers, problem-solvers, and leaders who are bringing big ideas and doing the hard work.

In this episode, Jonathan chats with Sylvia Acevedo, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA and author of Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist.

Jonathan and Sylvia talk about essential skills for a new world of work that values not only technology skills, but human skills. They explore what business leaders can learn from the Girl Scouts about creating a more equitable, diverse and inclusive future of work, including strategies for moving beyond biases that hold girls and women back. The conversations dives in to how managers can look for talent based on actual skills, and how companies can deploy skill-based credential and hiring frameworks that draw on the best of Girl Scout badges. And Sylvia describes a modern approach to benefits like parental leave that creates a fairer workplace, better work-life balance, and happier employees. 

- Hello everybody and thank you for joining us for another conversation. I'm delighted to have with me today none other than Sylvia Acevedo who is the immediate past CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. I am sure that's kind of hard or unusual for you to hear because it's only been a few days since you left that amazing role.

- Well, thank you very much, Jonathan. It's a real pleasure to be here.

- I'm delighted. And for those of you who don't know, Sylvia's story is a real amazing American journey. She, as I'm sure she will share with us, was a Girl Scout herself and by education, she's a Systems Engineer -- a real rocket scientist. You began at NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab, you worked on the Voyager 2 team, you've held senior roles at places like Apple and Dell and Autodesk. Just a couple of years ago you were cited on the Forbes "Top 50 Women in Technology" -- while you were the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, a good reminder about the role of tech in the work that you're doing and have been doing. And you're also the author of Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist -- and in many ways back to Girl Scouts again. And so we're just really pleased to be able to have a conversation with you today.

- Well, thanks so much, Jonathan. You know, you mentioned the book Path to the Stars and, you know, I got a copy right here. But you know when I wrote it, it has a lot to do with the things that you're working on as well, which is the workforce of the future and getting, you know, especially the rising generation to be prepared. And when I decided to write the book I thought about which market I wanted to look at and one of them I really wanted to address is middle school because if you think about it, it's that last time that you can do that proverbial 'putting your hand in the elevator' and so I think of my book as like stopping those elevator doors, it's like, 'Wait, wait, wait', you know, that's the last time that they can really be thinking about math and science in a meaningful way. Because if you're not prepared with ninth grade algebra, suddenly your choices of the types of careers that you can choose are really limited. It's not impossible but boy it does make it much more difficult and I decided to write my book for the middle school market because I thought in my mind If I can just get any boy or girl interested to take that additional science class, take that additional math class, the world of opportunities for them are really going to be dramatically larger.

- It's interesting, it's not only a really unique moment because it's like the last chance to get in and do those kinds of investments in your future but it seems like at middle school it's also an age at which that future starts to become a little bit more real. You can start to see yourself outside of school and begin to envision a future in which you might be more independent.

- You're right and your choice of electives really matter so if you haven't gotten some of those precursors in math and science then the types of electives that are available to you really point you in terms of a different way, a different possibility for your future and so I just wanted to make sure that people had, in the rising generation of youth, have all the possibilities ahead of them. You know, it's interesting. One of the projects I had worked on when I was at Girl Scouts was 'symbols of affiliation', reimagining how you think not just of uniforms but how do you reimagine symbols of affiliation and what was interesting is we partnered with the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. What was fascinating there is at the time fashion was a $3 trillion industry around the world but imagine what they said now is every prerequisite has some degree of technology. So they had these crickets, which are basically electronic scissors, and you program them on a computer. It's not heavy duty programming but still you have to have a little bit of finesse understanding computers. So can you imagine if you wanted to have a career in fashion and just because you didn't have a little bit of technology or a little bit of computer savvy, you were completely shut out from that career. And you know, so if you're thinking about everything from fashion to cybersecurity, you want to make sure that the rising generation of our American workforce has every tool available so that they can develop their potential.

- Let's talk a little bit more about those tools. It's easy to think that those tools can be about actually using software or specific applications or tech but the skills needed to be a human being that operates in a tech-enabled world, even in careers that didn't necessarily rely on tech as much as they do now, many need more than just technical chops. What are some of the complementary skills that you have been advising people to be thinking about at that age?

- You know, one of the things when we talk about STEM, I remind people that 'S' is science and science is to the great outdoors and there is so much about shutting down, you know, all of our mobility devices, our technology, putting them down and just wondering, just experiencing. And as you begin to experience you begin to notice and you begin to be much more present. And I like to say we are human beings, not human doings. And so a lot of times when you're on technology you're like, what's next, what's next, what's next, and what I love about science is you -- and especially being in the great outdoors--  is that you open up to the possibilities of wondering of what's possible and you become so much more present. You notice the air, you notice the trees, you notice, you know, the leaves that you're walking on if you're out on the forest, you just are so much more present. And so one of the important skills is really being present and being a human being. The other one is how do you interact with people? The other really challenging and why I'm really interested in getting more women and girls in cybersecurity and also in technology and around the table making important decisions, because what's been left out of the IoT, the Internet of Things is the 'S' which is safety and security, right? If you think about that, that's been left out. And if you thinking about children in particular, you know, we have laws that don't allow them to go to gaming devices in say Las Vegas, you cannot sit in front of a gaming device there are laws against that but yet we hand kids iPads with software that have the equivalent of that type of gaming device that really works on their brain and the dopamine triggers and I think a lot of people now are becoming aware of that. You know, their children are being influenced and perhaps their brain development is being changed and certainly the way they feel about themselves is being influenced by technology. So it's really important that we think about, you know, how do we use it, you know, what are the right appropriate ways at different times in your lives to be using the technology and have people to really think and weigh in on that. Because I think we're all experiencing through Zoom and, you know, it's wonderful to connect but it's not like the real experience of being with somebody and being able to understand people's facial characteristics, being able to understand you know, how to react with somebody in person. Those are so important. So we are still human beings and I want to make sure that that part isn't lost when we're looking at the skills that we need for our rising generation of youth.

- That dichotomy and that balance is so important. It also helps me appreciate why, during your tenure at the helm of the Girl Scouts, you oversaw the introduction of what I understand to be over 100 new STEM badges as well as badges in the outdoors. That sense of presence and observing and seeing what's going on around you and getting away from the technology was -- am I reading into this? -- a deliberate connection between both the growth in outdoors and in STEM badges?

- Absolutely, I really did feel like it was so important to understand the importance of technology and having those skills because you need to be at the table to influence technology, you have to have the ability to speak in technology, understand the concepts but at the same time I really wanted girls to be experiencing leadership skills, outdoor skills, teamwork, collaboration and those things you get by also by working. You know, being outdoors, also aligned a lot of entrepreneurship badges and leadership badges so that they would learn those skills and that is just so invaluable, being able to be present, deciding how you do project management, right? You know, that necessarily isn't a technology skill but it's really important to say, well, what are our goals? What are the resources that we need? Who's going to do what? You know, how do we divvy up the work? What happens, you know, what are some of the consequences if something goes wrong? What are contingency plans? All of those things are really important life skills. So yes, it was very much on a dual track and I know that I got my love of science by being a great outdoors and it really ...

- You were born and raised in South Dakota, right?

- I was born in South Dakota and after a few years my father was stationed somewhere else in Southern New Mexico and so I grew up in Southern New Mexico but my home is, you know, where I was born in South Dakota.

- Yeah, talk about outdoors I mean, some of the most beautiful sky and landscape we have on the planet are from places where first experienced these formative experiences. I want to just turn for a moment -- you're describing the kinds of skills that are foundational to people having ultimately a good trajectory, a path where they can be adaptable into different types of work, solving different kinds of problems -- skills that might cross whether it's from fashion or into IT or cybersecurity. There are a lot of companies today, including ones that you used to call home at Autodesk and at Dell and an Apple and so many others, that are taking a more skill specific look at how they think about training today. At Credly, we of course have seen a year over year doubling and doubling of the number of credentials and micro-credentials -- all kind of going after these in-demand skills. The skills needed for jobs that didn't even exist five or ten years ago but where we need a strong signal and knowing whether we can trust someone who has a skill. As a person who led an effort that reached 1.7 million girls and hundreds of thousands of adults supporting their growth how would you advise organizations taking a skill-based look at the world when they think about the training and the skills that matter? There's no better constellation -- I think everyone would look at the Girl Scouts and say, 'That's the ideal view of what a set of skill based accomplishments should look like.' What does that look like when you might advise companies trying to do the same thing?

- Okay, it's you know, what's really fascinating about that is that, you know, there's this thing that girls don't like in STEM and we really broke it apart and what we found was that so much of the STEM education had been based on what boys knew and were comfortable with so what interested boys and then building around that. And so what we focused on is how do we create our programming so it's interesting to girls because once you're interested then you can build on the confidence and once you build on the confidence you can build on the competence and I think that has a lot to do with what you're doing at Credly as well. So your first hurdle that you have to kind of bridge is the interest because you don't want girls going, there is STEM, I don't like it or that's just what my brother does and you know, we're talking about girls, we're talking about children, we're not talking about 18 year olds and adults, we're talking about children. And a lot of what we found was a lot of girls would say, for example, 'Legos that's what my brother's gotten since he's age three and he's playing with Legos, I'm not doing that so much.' And why that matters is then in school a teacher may think, 'Okay Legos, they're gender neutral, what a great way to introduce STEM.' And so she brings out a STEM curriculum based on Legos. Well, the girls go, 'You know, that's what my brother does.' The boys are like so excited, they've been doing STEM, you know, Legos all their life so they're immediately interested, they're also confident because they've been doing this for years so they've build on their competence. The girls are like, 'Okay, maybe I'm interested,' and it takes them a little while. Meanwhile they see all the boys, they're already done with the assignment and so their interest wanes and their confidence really doesn't get built on. The teacher says, 'Look, I chose a gender neutral total assignment and look the boys like it, the girls didn't therefore boys like STEM.' What we found was we needed, if we use something like Legos, we needed to bring it in a, you know, single sex environment so she's not competing against boys so then she can really decide if she's interested. And then if she's interested, then you build on the confidence and then you build on the competence. So when your skills, when you're looking at a company and you're looking at maybe a diverse population that normally you haven't recruited from, you know, you have to really think about how do I get them interested first because if you try to go and say, look we're going to be doing robotic, you know, robotic engineering for a warehouse, they may be thinking you're just trying to get rid of my job. What you're really trying to do is getting on the skill so that they can program maintain those robots, that's fantastic, that's a great skill to have but they may already be thinking I can't do that. So you've got to figure out how do you first get them interested in a way that then once they're interested, then they build on their confidence and once they build on their confidence and then you do what you're talking about micro-credentialing then you've building on the competence as well.

- Yeah, that's a really important framework for understanding motivation and what that hook in is and then how do you build on it and develop mastery. It is hard to do that when you're ignoring some of the most basic assumptions. And I love the example you gave about a teacher who thinks they're doing exactly the right thing but is missing some of the cues or making certain assumptions. On that point, I wanted to talk a little bit about creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce that includes gender, it includes race, it includes socio-economic backgrounds, includes people who have traditionally been overlooked for opportunities because we have systems in place that perpetuate the biases that we have one on top of another. What are some of the things that you've either done at the Girl Scouts or in your work and how you advise groups in thinking about -- what are the most fundamental steps when trying to address issues of lack of inclusiveness? Where do you start?

- Well, you know, first you've got to get a good look at you know, who you're trying to serve, what's your market and then you look at who you have within your organization and you'll see what kind of, you know, gaps there are there. So then you begin thinking about how do you begin addressing those gaps and then you also have to look at you know, where are you recruiting from and how are you recruiting. Are you client, you know, creating a criteria that automatically limits a lot of people who may not have a certain kind of credential but actually have the skills that you actually need but maybe they just don't have the credential or the university degree that go with it and then what can you do to develop those folks. We really found that in project managers, for example, that there is a credential project managers and we found that, you know, really tough market, really expensive to recruit them and so we started looking at other markets of people who incredibly organized, managed a lot of projects simultaneously but they didn't have that credential of project manager. And, you know, we were able to recruit in diverse populations with people that had that skill and actually, they turned out to be some of our best project managers who didn't have that quote unquote skill set or didn't have that quote unquote credential of project manager and now they're looking at how can I develop that. Additionally, some of our internal staff we noticed were really, again in project manager, were really skilled but they didn't even think of themselves that way. And we help them understand that this is something that can be credentialed and you can build on that skill set. So that would be one area that we really thought about. Another one is making sure that you know, you're recruiting all over the country because if you're just recruiting in one part when you're a national organization and you're recruiting in one urban area that may not be reflective of the entire country. And that also makes you a lot more open to diversity, diversity of thought, diversity of heritage and that was also incredibly important. And then the other thing which I think surprises people is that we also wanted to make sure that it was a very inclusive space for men, too. So we added, we were at the time one of the first known major nonprofits to have three months maternity leave and three months paternity leave and I'm really proud of that. You know, we ended up having a baby boom after that and I'm really grateful for that. The other thing that I did was I made sure that every quarter I met with all the prospective mothers and fathers and I had lunch with them and I said, 'Look, if anyone tries to say, you know, you have to cut back on your three months or however long you're going to take,' I said, 'you report them to me because you never get that time back.' And as a result we had just such amazing experiences from all of our new parents because they were able to really unhook and spend the time that they needed with their newborn children. So you have to get involved and make sure that, you know, you're recruiting diversity that people understand how important it is. Diversity of all types is also really important and so, you know, one of the things that I noticed was we didn't have as many Asians in Girl Scouts. And so I set about also making sure that they're recruited in other parts of the US to make sure that we added, you know, balanced Hispanic, African American, Asian, you know, a wide diversity.

- Yeah, I love hearing you speak at this level of specificity about the kinds of actions that leaders can take. And hearing you, it's an important reminder that modeling the kind of behaviors and modeling these kinds of activities is perhaps one of the most important thing you can do. That the baby boom is a great example of not just offering a benefit but encouraging people to take advantage of it and letting them know that there are not repercussions for whether you are a male or a female for taking advantage of this.

- Yeah, you know, we even did it with COVID, I still kept those lunch hours with the prospective parents and I learned about how challenging it was to be pregnant or having your partner expect a child during COVID. You couldn't go on the doctor visits, you know, you had to go alone. It suddenly became such a solo journey and how challenging that was and, you know, I learned a lot from that experience and I was so grateful and then by having all the others, you know, chime in on the call they could, you know, share tips of how they were getting through some of the challenges of being pregnant and giving birth during COVID.

- Yeah, well it is a very personal topic for me as you know, Sylvia. I became a dad just a few months before the pandemic hit and in addition to being grateful for being able to spend more time with our son and not on a train commuting to the office, I also I think came to appreciate the role of modeling what work-life balance means as a male in a way that I think more men need to step up and take advantage of those benefits that it is not only good for them and their families but it's also good for the women co-workers who fear the stigma of stepping aside from a role and wondering whether the opportunities will still be there when they get back. Mmen should experience that concern also and should know that women have their backs as well, so I love what you did there.

- Yeah absolutely, people knew that their jobs were safe but also their time off was safe. I did not want to hear that somebody was and I told people I do not want to hear anyone texting or emailing, you know, when you're off, none of that, you know, and there will be no repercussions. And also, we worked on when you're coming back, how do we improve that re-entry period as well because that was some other feedback we got which is like, yeah I stayed off but boy, so much happened so how do we figure out how to make that reentry a little bit easier.

- And it's so important if you can do it at the point a child is entering the lives of a parent or parents, you can also then set a set of expectations. Being a parent isn't just about the birth or the arrival of a child, it's an ongoing experience and it's something especially during these times of schools being closed and during a pandemic in which understanding how to navigate a work-life balance is really important and should apply to all parents equally in terms of expectations. I just have a few more questions for you. You know, speaking about some of the differences and obstacles we're trying to overcome with regards to diversity issues, women and young girls across the world have looked at you for inspiration. And as an inspiration, your journey and your story -- and as you've described in your book -- is just just an amazing and amazing story. And you said you wrote the book for both girls and boys. And I'm curious when you talk to leaders who are men today, what is the number one piece of advice you give them that surprises them? What kind of opens their eyes about making their workplace -- we all know the stubborn statistics about women making 80 cents on the dollar and being underrepresented in the boardroom and if you're a woman of color that statistic is much worse.

- Yeah, exactly.

- So have you heard epiphanies and aha moments, either in solicited manner or not, when you're talking to male leaders?

- Yeah so I was presenting at the Air Force Academy and, you know, top brass about cybersecurity in a cybersecurity threat and one of the things I addressed was the the notion of assumptions that we have. And I said that even in some research that the Girl Scout Research Institute had done that parents even if they saw their daughter being completely tech savvy, that if they had any network issue or computer issue they would immediately always go to their son, even if their daughter had demonstrated by her very actions that she loved technology and was the geek. And after that talk I had so many men that came up to me and they said, I had an aha moment and one of them, one of the General said to me, 'You know, just this weekend I had an issue with some streaming device,' and he said, 'I don't know why because my daughter is really the pro at it but I went and I asked my son.' And he said, 'I realized I just had this preconceived notion,' and he said, 'Thank you for opening up my eyes.' So I think sometimes for them they don't realize that there are all these preconceived notions that are restricting your, you know, you're thinking about, you know, potentially females or people who are traditionally not in that type of profession as possibilities just because of these preconceived notions. So I think it's really important, that's one of the things I think really surprises them. And the other one is, you know, somebody like myself I've stayed interested so much in tech and what's happening in space, right? And so I think that's another thing that really surprises them that, you know, I really do like talking about, you know, the recently large Parker Solar Probe that's on its way to the sun. And you know, the types of information and why that matters because solar flares can impact you know, our mobile technology and the communications that we rely on every day. They're like, like I didn't think you were going to talk to me about that. So I think sometimes for them understanding that, you know, people who have a variety of backgrounds can be really interested in technology and can be, you know, deeply technical or really be a contributor in their world.

- Do you find that the advice that you're sharing and these observations sometimes apply to women leaders too? We often think that a woman leader is looking out for these kinds of biases but are there sometimes pieces of advice you need to offer to women to remind them of biases they may be operating against?

- Well, you know, back to the whole thing about, we were talking about maternity benefits, you know, I had first started as an interim and so I was still in that interim role back then and I said, because I understand the importance of early childhood they said we want to improve maternity and they wanted to go from six weeks to eight weeks and I said no, we're going to go three months maternity and I said, also paternity and they were like, what? You know, they hadn't even really considered that so that was, you know, one of those mindsets that's maybe a little bit different as well. You know, I think all of us we grow up or we live in a bubble and so it's very important to have people who can give you insights to think outside of the bubble especially things are changing so rapidly. And you know, unfortunately with COVID, you know, just yesterday I was talking to a business leader and she was remarking that there are a lot of people who just are waiting for this to go back and it's like no, she said to all of her leaders it's not going to go back, we can't wait this out, we have to go forward into the future and we have to adapt and we have to be agile. And you know, there's just this sense of maybe if we just hang on a little longer, it'll all go back to the way it was forever and ever and that's not the way it is. And so that's really important that you have people who can help you understand that you know, when there are so many trends colliding like we have right now that they can help you out understand the importance of really adapting, being agile and making the changes that are strategic and important for your business.

- Well, I think that brings us full circle to our earlier discussion around STEM skills and getting outdoors in some ways because some of the core themes you shared with us earlier, were about being curious and asking questions but also getting out of your bubble and looking around and listening. and one way that happens is when you talk to other people, when you listen to other people and when you put yourself in a place where your ideas can be challenged. I think that's one of the beautiful things about the Girl Scouts experience and the kind of advice you're sharing is that there's so much around building community and learning and listening from others. And on that point, I'm really glad that I got to listen and learn from you. And one of the badges I am most proud of -- and that delights me most -- is this one that you handed me in your office.

- Yeah.

- And I keep it right behind me every day. It's here on my on my ledge where everyone can see it. And to me it reminds me of what you talked earlier about building confidence: working first from engaging people and then building confidence and then from there you can build mastery. After we had a lovely conversation in your office you shook my hand and you thanked me for what I was doing and the service that we're providing, and you connected it to what the nation needs. And that was inspiring and confidence building. You have that power. And I wanted to thank you for sharing a little of that with our listeners today. And I know you're going to continue to do amazing work and make terrific contributions to, hopefully, a more civil and a more progressive society that values each and every person and each and every girl and what they can bring to our world. So thank you so much.

- Well, Jonathan, thank you and thank you for the work that you're doing. You are a part of what America needs in terms of building a competitive workforce that allows opportunity for everyone and that is so crucial. So I want to thank you for what you're doing as well.

- Thank you, I wish I had a beautiful badge to return to you but we'll consider this one our bond and our shared experience. Thank you so much, Sylvia, and we will talk soon, I hope.

- Thanks so much, you bet