Get to know Anna Maria Chávez, first Latina CEO of Girl Scouts of USA
Last year, Anna Maria Chávez made history after becoming the first Latina appointed as CEO of the iconic Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA). Founded 100 years ago, GSUSA’s mission is to build girls’ self-esteem and leadership skills through a myriad of activities ranging from economic literacy to environmental awareness. At this stage in the game, the organization is much more than the tasty (and profitable) cookies it sells.
Heading a nonprofit organization that now boasts 3.2 million Girl Scouts comes with tremendous pressure. Yet, you’d never know that by the way Chávez carries herself.
During a recent elevator ride inside the organization’s New York City headquarters, the tall and elegant CEO’s cheerful disposition was contagious. With a wide smile painted in magenta lipstick, the 44-year-old introduced herself warmly to others inside the elevator, reaching out to shake everyone’s hands. Several minutes later, she exuded tremendous energy even while seated, ready to share the story of how she went from a small town in Arizona to leading the largest organization for girls in the world.
The Girl Scouts is home to Chávez, who was one herself at the tender age of 10. Raised in the small town of Eloy, Arizona, a young Chávez was the only girl of three in her home. Her Mexican family didn’t know what the Girl Scouts did, but they gave the organization a chance for Chávez, who remembers that time in her life vividly.
“I got to go to Girl Scout camp,” Chávez said. “And for me, growing up, that was a huge thing because we were never allowed to go away from home without parents or cousins or tias, you know, whatever the case may be. And so I got to go with my Girl Scout troop, and it was amazing. I loved it.”
Chávez left Arizona for college at Yale University, and eventually went back to become an attorney. Her professional trajectory since has included positions in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet, with two Arizona governors including now U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, and as a regional director with the Girl Scouts in Texas.
Despite her impressive resume, Chávez says her current position has her living the American dream. “It has been so exciting,” she said. “It’s like being on rollerskates, constantly going.”
In the last decade, GSUSA has undergone a significant change. The organization says Latina enrollment has nearly doubled, and Chávez seems to think there is potential for more engagement among the nation’s largest growing demographic.
“It’s a great growth, but I can tell you, it’s not enough,” she said. “As we move forward, and we continue to grow as an organization, my hope and my desire – our focus – is to ensure that we include more Latinas.”
To help with that initiative, the organization has launched a campaign called “To Get Her There”, intended to help adults understand, and find solutions to, the challenges faced by young girls.
“The majority of girls, unfortunately, don’t see leadership as something that is important to their lives or relevant in their lives,” she said, citing a recent study by the organization. “We want to approach adults around creating a positive environment.”
Leading a movement such as GSUSA’s leaves little time for leisure, but when she’s not working, Chávez dedicates her time to her family and faith. And then there’s her love for golf.
“That’s hard to sneak in just an hour at a time, you know,” Chavez said. “I haven’t had an opportunity to play in a while, but I’m hoping that in a few months I will.”
This Thursday, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will honor Chávez with its 2012 Chairman’s Award at “A Celebration of Women Entrepreneurship in America.” The event will take place in Washington, D.C., during the Chamber’s Legislative Summit Gala, which honors and recognizes the effect that Latina businesswomen have in America.
The award is an honor, but Chávez said it isn’t for her.
“I grew up in a family muy humilde,” she said. “We were taught that anytime that you were given recognition, that it wasn’t about you. It was about the organization you were working for, or the people you were working for. So, when I get this award it won’t be for myself. It will be for the millions of Girl Scouts that I represent.”