MARCH 2023 | Dr. Christina Kishimoto
Sylvia Acevedo is an American engineer and businesswoman. She was the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Girl Scouts of the USA from 2016 to 2020. Educated as a systems engineer, she began her career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she was on the Voyager 2 team. She has held executive roles at Apple, Dell, and Autodesk. In 2018, Acevedo was included in a Forbes list of “America’s Top 50 Women In Tech.” She was a founder, with 3 others of REBA Technology, an infiniband company that was sold and also the Founder and CEO of CommuniCard. As CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, Acevedo led the organization’s largest release of badges, over 100 badges in STEM and Outdoors over three years, in areas such as robotics, coding, engineering and cybersecurity.
In 2018 Sylvia was listed on Forbes’ “America’s Top 50 Women In Tech” and the same year Fast Company named Acevedo one of its “100 Most Creative People in Business”. She was awarded the 2019 Hispanic Heritage Award For Leadership. She joined the board of directors of Qualcomm in November, 2020 and serves on its Governance Committee.
Sylvia earned a B.S. in industrial engineering from New Mexico State University. The National GEM Consortium awarded Acevedo with the GEM Fellowship to fund her graduate school studies at Stanford University, where she was one of the first Hispanic students to earn a M.S. in systems engineering.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
So today we’re with Sylvia Acevedo. I am so excited to have a conversation with you because I met you years ago in Hartford, and you were doing work with the Girl Scouts then. And I think before we kind of get to that story, Sylvia, I’d love to just hear a little bit about where you grew up. Where did you spend your childhood?
Thanks so much for this opportunity, Christina. I was actually born in South Dakota. My father was in the military and I was born on Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. After my father’s tour of duty was over, we ended up moving where my family was located, which is Las Cruces, New Mexico. And that’s what I consider my hometown. I really loved it. But you know, my family, we struggled with money, financially lived paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes we actually ran out of money and had to live with other family members. I remember eleven people and one bathroom. So it was challenging when we finally could rent a house. It was in a really difficult part of town when there were dirt roads. And it was actually the last place a meningitis epidemic went through the United States, and several people died. Unfortunately my younger sister got ill, and with such insatiably high fevers, it changed her brain forever. That really was an inflection point in my family’s life.
My mother, and all my grandparents were born in Mexico. My mother was born in Mexico, and my dad was born in El Paso, right on the border. We lived in a very Spanish speaking, very culturally Mexican household. My mother, she couldn’t drive. We didn’t even have a phone in the house. My mother then got a driver’s license, and began finding a place that we could live in because my father had been in the military, he could sign up for a GI Bill. So we moved to a part of town where the streets were paved, the schools were a little bit better. Unfortunately, for me, it felt very isolating. But I was very grateful. I was in one of the very first pilots for Headstart, and I had an amazing teacher, who really helped me have a love of learning. And also, my mother, because I had been born in South Dakota, knew how important speaking English was and we were Baptist. She found a Baptist missionary to teach my older brother and me English at a very young age. So my first words in English, I think, were Jesus loves the little children. But those early childhood experiences really helped set me up
I would love to hear about when you first became passionate about science and engineering.
Well, I was very fortunate to live during the time of NASA going and putting a man on the moon. And I really got caught up in that. And I sort of had this epiphany when I was in the library, and I looked around, and all the books and magazines were about men doing NASA. And then also the IBM computers that were helping the satellites and the rockets be able to go to the moon, and it was all men and I had this epiphany thinking, you know, not gonna be a man. But what is it that you do? And I realized what they did was math and science. And so I decided as a young girl that I was gonna get really good at math and science. And then fortunately for me, I was in the Girl Scouts, and my troop leader had seen me looking at the stars during a campout. And she had taught me that, you know, they weren’t just twinkly lights; they were planets. They were stars; they were constellations. And so later on, she encouraged me to earn my science badge, doing something with space.
One of the things I did was make an Estes rocket, and I failed many times. And that was also really important because, in that all-girl environment, it was okay to fail. I think if I had tried to make a rocket five, six times and failed, people would have said, you’re a girl, you can’t do it. But in that environment, it was like, let’s figure it out until you can do it. And when my rocket finally went up into that beautiful blue, New Mexico desert sky, I felt that I can do science, I can do math, and I really began applying myself. I remember a couple of years I bugged my teachers so much for more math, that they just handed me the teacher’s guidebook and said, go for it, Sylvia. And I got so good at math that I became a rocket scientist.
Well, I love that journey that you talk about from the Girl Scouts to being a rocket scientist. And, so, what are words of inspiration that you can provide to women and to all young girls today in terms of your journey and how they can think about themselves, how do you self-empower?
I had a couple of amazing experiences. Because I had Girl Scouts, which were really pivotal in my life, that really gave me the confidence and also taught me how to create opportunity, and also how to overcome obstacles. So which is building that resilience and that persistence, that you really need. And I, you know, as I mentioned, my family struggled with money. And so my troop leader, let me sell cookies and use the cookie funding for all the projects that I wanted to do in Girl Scouts, and I wanted to do everything, which at the time, meant selling a lot of boxes of cookies.
When I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to college and signed up for college counseling. And the college counselor, she saw me in the lobby, and she said, what are you doing here? And I said, well, I signed up for college counseling. And she said girls like you don’t go to college. Now, unfortunately, numerically, she was correct. But that’s the wrong thing for any educator to have said. But remember, as a young child, for me, what was that? That was my first No. I got up, and walked into her office. She followed me. And then she asked me, okay, what do you want to study in college, and I said, I want to be an engineer. And she laughed. And I went on and became an engineer and a rocket scientist. So you know, that was just my second No. And so I just went on and, you know, did what I wanted to do, which was studying engineering. And then, in my professional career, I’ve had many of those kinds of obstacles. And thankfully, I know how to create opportunity. Because when other people didn’t see someone like me, being that engineer, or being that executive, I was able to overcome those obstacles. And then also having that persistence, that resilience, and also that courage, you know, when you know, you can create opportunity that gives you a tremendous amount of courage.
Your story is so powerful because just knowing how to handle no as a woman, as a woman of color, it’s something we need to teach our young ladies, and even teach our women in professions where sometimes the door closes before you’ve even been able to step in and have a voice. And so being able to position yourself in a way where you know how to handle that no, and still pursue your passions. It’s life-changing, as you have demonstrated in your life. It’s amazing. I look at part of your life story, and you’ve been part of the Obama administration. Forbes has noted you as one of the top 100 women in America. And also, you were noted as a top Latina woman, and you have all these accolades. And so, how do you take those accolades, and now reach out to others, inspire them, and help them understand that life journey and how to be the author of your own life?
Well, thank you for that. And, you know, I’ve been really fortunate, and I’m very grateful for the people ahead of me, who opened up the path. They may not have been able to go through the door that I went through, but I’m very aware that they were there making that hole in the wall so that I could like break through and be one of the trailblazers. So, you know, I really am very intent on how do we create more opportunities for the rising generation. When I was going through my career, people weren’t looking for a Latina engineer. They weren’t looking for that Latina head of a division, they weren’t looking for that. And what I did instead is, I really focused on what skills are needed to be excellent in those roles. And so I really don’t focus on, you know, yes, I’m incredibly proud of my heritage. But you know, what I’m really focused on, I want to be the best at the skills that are needed for that role. And so that makes it really hard to say no to me in those because I really know how to do that role very well. And that’s what I really encourage folks, the rising generation, you know, don’t be a victim, figure out what are the skills needed, and be so good at those skills, and really figure out how do you create opportunities for yourself and right now, wow, there’s just so many.
So you know, when I was going through there, there really wasn’t any. And in fact, in my first job as an engineer, there wasn’t even a bathroom. So if you’ve seen Hidden Figures, they ran to a bathroom. I didn’t even have one, right? So I wouldn’t even drink much water. I would take my bike to work, and then at lunchtime, I would ride my bike. And it took six weeks before they finally brought in my own Porta Potty. And literally, it said hers on it. But you know what? You just have to overcome them and don’t be a victim and say, how do I get to that? Yes. How do I make this happen?
And it’s hard to believe that because these are contemporary times, right? So you look at that, and you say, you really mean that this has happened during our lifetime. And yes. And Hidden Figures is a great book, by the way, I love it. Very inspirational for young ladies. So who are the women who impacted you and left an imprint on your life?
So the first ones were actually women I found in the library, Clara Barton in Florence Nightingale, and those women really inspired me. You know, I read everything about them. So everybody thought I was gonna be a nurse. But now I realize I liked them because they were systems, thinkers, you know. Clara Barton put in a whole new way of providing medical support at the Civil War, started the first Red Cross, and got a patent for the first aid kit. I mean, this is really pretty amazing, right? And then, Florence Nightingale used data to show that there was a better way of using of doing triage. And that’s really the system we use to this day. She was the first woman allowed to be in this royal statistical society. And she created a chart named one of the best that has changed the course of history. So I think their systemic point of view resonated for me, such as Florence Nightingale and young Clara Barton. Contemporary-wise, I was very fortunate to have met governor Anne Richards in Texas. I admired her; she did so much that helped so many people. And she was a great leader. And she always figured out a way to bring humor to tough situations. And so I was very, very inspired by her.
She’s quite a powerhouse as a governor and posts, you know, governorship in terms of the work that she continued to do and make herself available out there. Absolutely. And what’s funny is, the world is small. My older brother went to Clara Barton High School in New York City when we were growing up. And that’s actually how I learned Clara Barton’s story. And so I’m just personally touched by your thinking about her as a real role model for yourself.
I’d love to wrap up by having you share a little bit about the book you’ve written, which I think is fascinating. And I love the title of the book. Tell me a little bit about it.
It is called Path to the Stars. And it’s also Camino a las Estrellas; it’s translated. It’s a middle school memoir. So as an adult, it’s a really easy read. But, you know, the reason I wrote the book is that I was speaking to a bunch of graduating high school seniors, and afterward, we walked out of the auditorium, and it was really long line. And I said, Oh, that’s the line for lunch. And the woman said, No, that’s the line of the kids who want to talk to you. And so many who said, How come I don’t know about you? How come I’m not reading about you? I realized it was up to me to write the book about my life. And I decided on middle school because if you think about elevator doors shutting, I thought of my book as being what you put right between the elevator doors, because that’s sort of the last time with electives, that you can get kids really into math and science and really change their career trajectory.
You know, if you just take chemistry, even if you don’t become a biologist or a chemist, because you know there’s a periodic table, because you know about atoms and molecules, suddenly, you can get a job in that field, in pharmaceuticals, you know, there’s so many. But if you didn’t, you really wouldn’t know that. So either in administration or marketing and operations, you wouldn’t even be eligible for that. So that wouldn’t necessarily be a STEM job. But because you knew a little bit, now all of those industries are available to you. So it was so important to have that book be in that middle school timeframe. And then I really wanted to have kids inspired because, you know, my family life wasn’t without challenges. I did grow up on a dirt road. You know, my family had really difficult moments. But yet, those things didn’t defeat me. And because I had some great mentors, great teachers, and good experiences like in Girl Scouts, after-school experiences, I was able to overcome those challenges and really have a life that allowed me to live a life of my potential.
When the book came out, I did a book tour. And I was so struck, it didn’t matter what socio-economic group you were in, the kids really gravitated to the book. But I was really touched, especially by Latino kids who hadn’t had any book at all in their library that they can see as a role model. And when you think of states, like Texas, where every other kid under 18 is Latino, a STEM workforce is absolutely crucial to driving the workforce that is needed. You’ve got to think, how can I inspire them? And so, role models are absolutely necessary. I remember I was in St. Louis, and a librarian came up to me, and she said, let me tell you something about your book, I have book reading groups, and there was this one kid, I could never reach him, no matter what I did, I just couldn’t engage him. And then I started reading from your book. And then I was reading about the part where you were translating in English and Spanish when you were young. And she said, all of a sudden, he pops up, and he goes, Oh, I do that all the time, it’s exhausting. And she looks at him. And it’s like, he speaks. But she realized there was nothing that she had read, that reflected anything to engage him. She told me how grateful she was for that book. And, you know, I’ve had that story on and on. I mean, just the other day, a middle school teacher in Chicago sent me these beautiful letters from her students who said, I’ve never read a book that is so reflective of my life.
And it gives me such hope. And also, it’s kind of interesting, because there’s a lot about how I had challenges, my father, who had very patriarchal views, about opportunities for girls, and how we had clashes, but we ultimately overcame them. I really find that that resonates across so many different cultures. There are just so many women that come up to me and say, how inspired they were by the books.
I love the stories because we just look at what’s happened in our own social political history at this point in time, and conversations about whose history gets told, and by whom. And our kids are pushing back. Now they’re saying we’re learning for the first time some points about our own history and our ancestors that we never knew, and why not. Our young people are pushing back. And these kinds of stories are so important to share. So, Sylvia, I thank you for this time with you. I really appreciate it. I love the way you connect your childhood all the way through to what you’re doing now, and serve as a role model to so many nationally.
Well, thank you very much, Christina. Thank you for the work that you’re doing as well.