3 lessons this former NASA scientist learned from selling Girl Scout cookies

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Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Sylvia Acevedo first became a Girl Scout at 7 years old. Although today she boasts previous careers at NASA, IBM, Apple, Autodesk and Dell, Acevedo tells CNBC Make It that she feared her family couldn’t afford for her to be a part of the program as a child.

“When I got into Girl Scouts I really loved it. We were planning all the activities we were going to do,” Acevedo says, recalling her disappointment.

Growing up, her Mexican-American family lived paycheck to paycheck at their home on a dirt street in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her troop leader told her all would be okay because they were going to sell cookies, an entrepreneurial training program that today earns the Girl Scouts $800 million each year.

“I thought, ‘Sell cookies?'” Acevedo says, highlighting her shock at the time.

“If you are a kid who’s living in poverty and living paycheck to paycheck, you don’t know how to create opportunities,” she adds.

But, to this day, she uses the lessons learned from selling Girl Scout cookies as a child. Here are three things she took away from the experience:

How to create opportunities

From the moment Acevedo expressed confusion about selling cookies, her troop leader laid down the basics on how to set goals, create a budget and put a plan together to succeed.

This advice would pop up again for Acevedo when working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab after graduating college. Her mentor told her, When you decide and you make a commitment that you’re going to achieve something, it’s really within your goal. It’s up to you to make that happen.”

Acevedo says this stuck with her, reminding her of her younger Girl Scouts days when she learned: “You set your goals, you set your determination, you got your drive and you just go and make it happen.”

“It resonated with me because of what my troop leader had taught me: You can create your own opportunities, you can set your goals, you can break down what you need to accomplish … and then just achieve them,” Acevedo says.

How to not take “no” for an answer

When selling cookies, Acevedo and other Girl Scouts were -and still are – taught to “never walk away from a sale until you’ve heard no three times.”

“When you’re first selling and you’re selling to family and friends, everyone says yes,” Acevedo says. “I still hadn’t met my goals so I realized I was going to have to talk to people I didn’t know and introduce myself and introduce them to Girl Scouts.”

When Acevedo told her high school guidance counselor she wanted to go to college for engineering, 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.”

But selling cookies taught her “to be persistent,” she says. “It certainly gave me motivation.”

At a tech company earlier in her career, Acevedo recalls asking her managers to allow her to work in Latin America. There, she could use her Spanish fluency to help grow the company’s business. Instead, she was told, “you can’t do that, it’s too dangerous.”

To prove herself, Acevedo booked her own flight, visited the company’s Latin American regional offices and won her international colleagues over.

“They all loved me,” Acevedo says. “I did that on my own dime but I wasn’t going to take no because I knew I had the skill set.”

She later led Latin American regional offices for AutoDesk and Dell.

Be confident in your competence to handle money

Acevedo says Girl Scouts taught her to be confident when discussing money.

“When selling Girl Scout cookies, I would add up the numbers until I would get to that total and it made me feel really good at adding numbers,” Acevedo says.

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.

She adds she became the go-to person with her friends on how to negotiate for better pay, additional benefits or more stock options.

“The Girl Scouts cookies program is more than just selling boxes of cookies. It really teaches you so much about setting goals objectives and how to have good business sense,” Acevedo says. “Those are the kind of skills that stay with you your whole life.”

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