Sylvia Acevedo was born into near poverty in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with her family living paycheck to paycheck.
But a few transformative things happened in young Sylvia’s life that would take her beyond this poverty and into the stars.
While she didn’t yet know it at the time, young Sylvia’s life had already been changed some 50 years earlier. Juliette Gordon Low had created the Girls Scouts of America in 1912 and infused it with dreams that she was never able to realize for herself. By establishing a community girls program, Juliette poured her dreams into her beloved Girl Scouts, hoping they would shape the lives of young girls like Sylvia. The story that follows is a testament to Juliette’s amazing vision.
When Sylvia was young, her family experienced an outbreak of meningitis that caused them to move to another neighborhood. But Sylvia found it hard to make friends in her new school until a classmate invited her to attend a Brownie meeting. Reluctant to go, Sylvia did and this meeting forever changed her life.
In no time, Sylvia was immersed in all kinds of projects and enjoying activities that kept her from being alone in the school cafeteria. Instead, she was surrounded by her fellow Brownie-troop friends.
One day at a camp out, a troop leader noticed Sylvia staring up at the night sky so she pointed out the constellations and planets to her. When it came time to choose badges to work on, the leader, remembering Sylvia’s interest with stars, suggested she work on the science badge. This instilled in Sylvia a love of science.
Sylvia enrolled in every science and math electives she could during high school. When she told her school counselor of her wish to attend college, the counselor, likely noting Sylvia’s gender and Hispanic heritage told her that “girls like her didn’t go to college.” Those words made Sylvia more determined than ever to go to college.
Sylvia went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from New Mexico State University and was one of the first Hispanics, male or female to earn a Master’s degree in Systems Engineering from Stanford University, her dream school.
She started her career at Jet Propulsion Labs, where she worked on the Voyager’s mission flyby of Jupiter and its moons, and the Solar Polar/Probe missions. In the early days of the Silicon Valley, Sylvia continued to break gender and cultural confines as one of the first few female executives and a White House staffer planning initiatives that would provide Hispanics with educational opportunities.
It was when Sylvia had started working on the Board for the Girl Scouts that she was tapped to be the interim CEO of Girl Scouts in 2016. A year later she assumed the official role as the CEO.
Sylvia set to work establishing objectives that includes boosting membership and updating the Girl Scout program. Sylvia has continued to build what Juliette Gordon Low started, introducing thirty new badges focused in areas like Robotics, Cybersecurity and Environmental Stewardship.
Having the Girl Scouts focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) insures they are keeping up with the technology curve while still retaining the core values of scouting from its inception such as outdoor activities and community service.
The girls-only environment continues to provide a safe and unique setting for girl, in contrast to the Boy Scouts who have allowed girls to join their ranks. By keeping the Girl Scouts separate and girl-focused, there is a dedicated approach that encourages friendships, empowerment and support. It’s likely the organization’s expertise in knowing how girls learn and lead that explains why they have continued to be so successful for over 100 years.
Recently, Sylvia published a book, Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist. It is written in English and also available in Spanish, and chronicles her inspiring life story from her humble beginnings. She shares what it’s like to work in male dominated fields and provides insights about the importance of empowering young girls as the leader of the Girl Scouts.
Sylvia’s message to girls is particularly timely when you consider the gender discrimination that persists in many societies and the need for girls and women to come together to support each other.
“Don’t let anyone dissuade you with words. Don’t let anyone say you don’t belong. Don’t let anyone do that. Being a rocket scientist was my dream, but everyone has their own dream. I hope girls read this book and get the message, you can live your dreams.”
Sylvia Acevedo is a modern-day Juliette and a timely leader for guiding, preparing and inspiring the next generation of Girl Scouts to ascent to new levels! If they dream big and work hard enough, they might just follow in Sylvia’s footsteps to the stars.