Opening Doors

UPDATED: September 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: September 13, 2012

Nothing about the bland waiting area in the Girl Scouts of the USA’s midtown Manhattan headquarters—not the off-white walls, brown couch, not even the ubiquitously offered cookies—prepares a visitor for the moment the organization’s CEO, Anna Maria Chávez, throws open the door to her corner office. There, suddenly, is a burst of pop-art color: A purple couch, sunny acrylic side tables, buttercup and avocado-green walls. And in the middle, Chávez herself: a tall, lanky vision in Girl Scout-green suit (of course), apple-red lipstick and cinnamon skin.

“I wanted the girls to feel comfortable in here,” says the Arizona native. “This is their space. And it’s worked. I’ve done tests! They come in and want to play.” She gives her trademark throaty laugh.

Inclusion is more than a paint-deep concern for the 44-year-old Chávez: It’s been a theme in her life since she was growing up in a Mexican-American family in a small agricultural community in the Southwest. Then last year, when she became the first person of color to head this iconic, 100-year-old organization—one of the largest nonprofits in the country, with 2.3 million girls and 890,000 adult volunteers—hundreds of journalists, it seems, fell in love with the metaphor of her biography. A former Girl Scout herself, Chávez was taking the helm as demographics were changing and nearly half of U.S. children under age 5 were minorities.

“We need to invest in girls in a way that’s transformational,” she says. “It took a village to help me to survive and get to where I am.”

In the 1970s, Eloy, Ariz., was a scrubby town of about 7,500 people. “Everybody knew everybody,” Chávez says. “By the time I’d get home from school, my grandmother, my Nana, would have already gotten two phone calls: ‘Did you know that Anna Maria stopped off at the Piggly Wiggly to buy candy? I thought she wasn’t allowed till after dinner.’ You got away with nothing!”

Chávez remembers her six-person household (she’s bracketed by two brothers) being at the center of the large Latino community. “People were always coming to our house at nights, on weekends,” she says. “I’d wake up at night and my parents would be around the kitchen table, translating government letters, things of that nature.”

Her father, who was from Michoacán, in Mexico, had first worked in the fields, then bought a TV repair shop—he’d taught himself English and taken a correspondence course in repair. Her Mexican-American mother, Maria, would eventually run for the school board.

“I think that’s where I got my interest in public service,” Chávez says. “In my family, you couldn’t not give back. You couldn’t not volunteer. It wasn’t an option.”

Around age 10, when Chávez’s best friend joined the Girl Scouts, she did, too. Her troop only had one badge book, which members shared, and they dispensed with wearing nonessential uniform pieces to save money. (When Chávez was interviewed on Good Morning America this year, Katie Couric showed off a photo of herself as a Girl Scout. “She had the full regalia,” Chávez says, with a tinge of envy. “Even the white gloves.”) Yet the experience was transformational. “I went away overnight for the first time. It was only Girl Scout camp in Tucson, an hour away, but for me it might as well have been light-years,” says Chávez. “I was scared, and I cried, but it got me thinking about the wider world.”

Which was good, because she was about to join it. Chávez’s parents knew that—Girls Scouts notwithstanding—their kids would need a larger stage in order to be successful. So when she was 12, the family moved to Phoenix, switching their brainy, industrious daughter from a school with 200 kids to one with more than 2,000. “It was a drastic difference,” says Chávez. “They did their research and specifically moved us to the No. 1-rated school district in Arizona, which meant I was behind in the curriculum. It took an entire support system—my teachers, my Nana, clocking when I got home from school—to make sure I survived.”

Chávez says her parents never dictated her dreams. “They never said, ‘We want you to be this or that.’ What they did was set very high expectations. They wanted me to understand, ‘This is your opportunity; we’re gonna show you the door and unlock it, but only you can decide to walk through.’ ”

And walk through it she did. Six years later, having decided she wanted to be a lawyer, she applied only to Brown and Yale Universities. “We didn’t know about safety schools or anything like that,” she says. She got into both. Her mother’s cool response upon hearing the news: “ ‘That’s what we expected, right?’ ”

Chávez landed at Yale, having never been to Connecticut—or the East Coast, for that matter. In her freshman year, she says, only 16 students out of a class of more than 1,000 were Mexican-American.

“It was like going to Mars,” she says. “My first semester there, there were times I thought, ‘Can I compete?’ Everyone was a valedictorian or a salutatorian. But once you get in, Yale does everything in its power to ensure that you succeed. The school provided financial resources. It put together a mentoring program for students like me, who didn’t come from Ivy League backgrounds. I loved it.”

And she gave back, joining a Yale program that paid students from under-represented communities to fly home and recruit during spring break. “I went to Nogales [in Mexico]. I went to Native American reservations,” she says. “One year, I hit so many high schools, my mother had to drive the car so I could sleep in the back. I really wanted other kids to be able to have this opportunity.”

Giving back had been, of course, why Chávez went to college to begin with. After Yale, she attended University of Arizona Law School and eventually ended up in Washington, where she worked in federal agencies such as the Small Business and Federal Highway administrations, advising senior and White House officials on policy issues such as civil rights, affirmative action and minority and small business development. Eventually, she became a senior policy adviser to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater. She also met and married her husband, Rob, a financial analyst.

“My high school teachers came to my wedding,” she says. “They came to my baby shower. I still send them Christmas cards.”

Then, with the end of the Clinton years, she moved back to Arizona to work for the state government. It was there, while she was serving with the Arizona Department of Economic Security, that she decided she might want to work with kids. The idea came to her, she says, the night of the state’s annual homeless count, when she found herself in an overflow shelter at 10:30 p.m. Two kids, a girl about 8 years old and a boy around 5, were playing in the corner. “How are you?” she asked, and the girl answered, “I’m scared.”

“Immediately I thought, ‘Who did what to this little girl?’ ” recalls Chávez, who was then a new mother. “But when I asked, ‘Why, honey?’ she said, ‘I’m scared that I won’t be able to finish my homework and I won’t be able to find my school in the morning.’ And it dawned on me that, while kids have big dreams, what they don’t have is a voice at the decision-making table. They’re not in Congress; they’re not at state budget tables. From that point on, I wanted to help bring that voice.”

In 2009, Chávez working as a deputy chief of staff for then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano when Napolitano was named secretary of Homeland Security. A job heading up the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas came up, and Chávez went for it. Just a couple years later, she was called to the top job in Manhattan. She flew her parents in for the big public rally where she gave her first speech.

“There were Jumbotrons behind me, and at one point the camera focused on my parents and my father was crying,” she says. “I’m glad I couldn’t see them, because I would have lost it.”

Since then, she’s been adjusting to life both in Manhattan and in the big green fishbowl. Recently, for example, she took her husband’s advice and stopped hedging when people ask her the name of her favorite Girl Scout cookie. “It’s Samoas,” she says, laughing once more. “Now I can say it!”

Her biggest project is the organization’s recently announced, multiyear, ToGetHer There campaign. For anyone who thinks of the green-suited girl troops primarily as cookie-slingers, the scope of this effort might come as a surprise: It’s aimed at getting women parity in leadership roles throughout society—in a single generation.

But for anyone who knows Chávez, it won’t be a surprise at all. Anything else would simply be aiming too low.

“Of course we want to reach more girls with the Girl Scouts,” she says. “But we also need to invest in girls in a way that’s transformational, not just for girls and Girl Scouts, but for this country.”