As a young lawyer, Anna Maria Chavez worked in both state and federal government, but she's returned to a journey she started long ago to head up an organization with more than 3 million members, employees and volunteers, a journey with the Girl Scouts. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
From headquarters in midtown Manhattan, Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez certainly knows how to play to her organization's strengths.
"I ask, 'How many people in the audience were Girl Scouts?' And, again, majority of women will, and I say, 'How many people have bought Girl Scout cookies?' Every single hand will go up, men and women," she says.
She also knows that it's about much more than the cookies.
"For an organization that's over 100 years old, how do we stay relevant?" she says.
"For the girl who wants these experiences, both globally, but also wants to make a local impact in her community," she adds. "We have 13 financial literacy badges. We're teaching girls about what a mortgage is, how to invest their cookie dollars so they can go on to college. So we're teaching them both financial skills, but we're also teaching them about, what is philanthropy?"
Chavez oversees an organization with more than 3 million members, employees and volunteers, and she brings a natural charisma to her role. She's the youngest CEO in the Girl Scouts' history, and also the first Latina.
Chavez sees the role of the Girl Scouts as nothing less than critical because the window for young girls to choose a positive path can be short.
"Middle school. It's when girls all of a sudden enter an age where societal issues, pressures from peers, where they're having to make sometimes really difficult choices and not understanding the impact in their future," she says.
"We're building resiliency in these girls so that, let's say they get into junior high and high school and they're approached to do things that may be negative for them in the future, they have the self-confidence to say, 'You know what? I've got other options, and I'd rather go down this path.'"
The current Ban Bossy social media campaign, co-sponsored by leanin.org and Girl Scouts of the USA, encourages young girls to become leaders. It features some of the nation's most influential women, including Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice, Beyonce, Diane Von Furstenberg and Anna Maria Chavez.
The Ban Bossy campaign is partially inspired by some of the issues facing Chavez and other leading female executives, issues that male CEOs rarely hear.
"There are different, let's say ways that women have to go about change in leading organizations," she says. "Where men can kind of go straight at it, women have to do it a little differently so that they can create, buy in and move issues forward. We're much more collaborative."
Chavez held a number of jobs in the Clinton administration, then worked for Governor Janet Napolitano in Chavez's home state of Arizona. In 2009, she took a regional position with the Girl Scouts in Texas.
Chavez respects the rich history of the Girl Scouts, created in 1912, but she also sees herself as an agent of change. When she arrived in New York in 2011, she felt that many changes were necessary.
"I saw what we were dealing with: declining memberships, declining revenue, camps that hadn't been invested in in years, girls changing rapidly, no digital platform, no technology system across the moment," she says. "These are huge issues, you know, and I said, 'Wow, this is not, you know, for the faint of heart.'"
Chavez's action brought a reaction. In 2013, the New York Post published stories quoting anonymous former staffers with complaints about the atmosphere under Chavez, the money spent on her office and changes in personnel on her watch. In the story, some of those former staffers dubbed her "the cookie monster."
Chavez responded with a blog on The Huffington Post citing the need for change.
"In my career, I've always been brought in as the change agent. For some reason, I don't know why, but I've always got some very difficult assignments," she says.
"Any time you go into a situation, you're going to have your barriers, you're going to have your obstacles," she added. "All of us in the organization, whether we're here in New York or sitting in a local council, we're here for the girl, and that is what I've always focused on."
Anna Maria Chavez's own Girl Scout experience started in her small hometown of Eloy, Arizona. She credits the Girl Scouts with teaching her about environmental justice and the importance of respecting public spaces. She was 12, on a family trip, when she discovered graffiti in an old cave.
"'How could they do this? This is a Native American relic, and we need to protect the land,'" she says. "So my mother says to me, 'So, how do you go about doing that?' And I said, 'Well, you've got to pass a law,' and she goes, 'Well, who does that, Anna Maria?' And I said, 'Well, lawyers.' She's like, 'Well, what are you going to do about that?' 'I guess I'm going to law school.' So it was literally because Girl Scouts taught me how to protect the environment, it, again, I connected the dots and said 'I've got to be a lawyer' at the age of 12."
Her parents moved the family to Phoenix so Chavez could attend a better high school. From there, she went on to Yale University, experiencing a completely different climate.
"I remember distinctly sitting in a lecture course at Yale. There's a 14-year-old genius sitting on one side and Jennifer Connelly sitting on the next, you know, the row next to me. And I'm like, 'OK, movie star, 14-year-old prodigy. What am I doing here?" she said.
"It was the end of the semester, and I had $1 left. And I was on a meal plan, so if I missed a meal, I was done. And I was sitting there, and we were in finals, and I had that $1, and I taped it above my desk. And every once in a while, I would look and I'd see the dollar, and I'm like, 'Head back down,' because I knew that represented what could be my future."
In the 2000s, Chavez oversaw the state's homeless shelters in Arizona. It was there that she met a 12-year-old girl whose family had been living in a car for six weeks, an experience that led Chavez back to the Girl Scouts.
"I said good night to her, and I got in my car and I got home, and that's when I'm crying. I'm just crying. And my husband's like, 'What is going on? Why are you so upset?' And I said, 'I'm angry. I'm upset because nobody will ever hear Andrea's story,'" she says.
"I'm here because of Andrea, because, you know, she was losing her voice, and as an adult, I just couldn't sit back anymore, you know, and just let the Andreas of the world not have an advocate."
The organization's goal, empowering young women to dream big, may sound simple enough, but it can be a battle when society's messages to young girls are not always quite so positive.
"I'm very sensitive to that, having been in environments where either I was the only woman or I was the youngest or I was the only person of color," she says. "But I never say myself that way. I just saw myself as Anna Maria Chavez, the daughter of Jose and Maria Chavez, and they basically said I could do anything, so why can't I?"