Maria Wynne – CEO, Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago & Northwest Indiana

CEO, Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana

By Muriel Vega

The Girl Scouts has been shaping girls for nearly 100 years. “Many of the successful women I talk to every week have been Girl Scouts and they attribute their success to the discipline and character-building programs they learned in the Girl Scouts program, especially selling cookies,” says Maria Wynne, CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Well, it’s that time of the year again – time for Girl Scout cookies. She leveraged the introduction of the new Dulce de Leche cookie in 2009 as a part of her plan to increase diversity among the Girl Scouts.

She’s the first Latina CEO and first CEO to oversee the merger of all seven council operations. The council merger brings together resources that expand opportunities for nearly 95,000 girls and 24,000 volunteers in 245 communities in six Illinois counties. Of Colombian decent and raised there as a girl, Wynne oversees all council operations and focuses on expanding leadership opportunities for girls, as well as bringing together girls from different backgrounds and communities, especially the Hispanic community.

Here, she talks to PINK about the best business advice she ever received and why she loves singing.

PINK: As the first Latina CEO how are you promoting diversity within the Girl Scouts?
Maria Wynne: I’m really proud that in my first year here, we’ve grown our Hispanic girl membership. I am thrilled that in April, you will see a strong national emphasis on the Hispanic marketplace and encouraging mother-daughter relationships in incoming members. This is a market that hasn’t known us very well, partially because in [Hispanic] countries there’s no exposure to the Girl Scouts. Hispanic girls tell us wonderful stories about how Girl Scouts helped them make connections with girls who embrace them and to learned about leadership. These are important contributions since often times they are the first generation and lead the way for their family.

PINK: How are you reaching out to Hispanic girls and this untapped market?
M.W.: We had a great conversation starter with the Dulce de Leche cookie. It allowed us to tell the Hispanic community what we were about and share the opportunities available for the girls. Through the leadership in our organization, we have been able to create a network that is trusted by the Latino community. This has opened a lot of doors for us and I think that’s largely why we have seen a large increase in participation. All of our programs and curriculum for girls 5-17 years old are bilingual. Many troops also have a Spanish-speaking troop leader to help the girls become and stay bilingual.

PINK: How are you implementing technology in the Girl Scouts?
M.W.: We are the biggest council in the United States (seven councils across two states) that supports the work of nearly 120,000 volunteers and girls and without technology we wouldn’t be able to communicate. We’ve embraced technology to be able to work locally and remotely and increase productivity. At the girl level, technology allows the girls to have a virtual experience and communicate with other troops, opening a new world of opportunities. We can also reach children who might be temporarily disabled, provide them with a support system with kids their own age and give them a sense of normalcy.

PINK: What’s your success secret?
M.W.: Results are your ticket to earning the right to do anything else. Hard work and results have to be the basic elements to success. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to be creative and innovate in every single job that I’ve ever had.

For example, when I was at Microsoft, we worked very closely with mayors to bring digital literacy to their cities. In Miami, there’s a program called Elevate Miami that provides digital literacy to youth, adults and seniors. The goal is to better prepare them to participate and compete in the new digital society and economy by becoming more comfortable with new technologies like computers. With the support of Mayor Diaz, we were able to replicate the program in other cities.

PINK: What’s the best business advice you ever received?
M.W.: It came from my dad – he taught me to remember it’s always about the customer. You have to create genuine value for the customer and you always have to listen to them. In our case, customers are girls and we spend a lot of time trying to find out what Girl Scouts means to girls today. We are also listening to our volunteers. Before I worked at Xerox and got my master’s degree, I worked at a women’s health club led by Jenny Craig. Jenny would always say, “A customer is first, last and always.” I have never forgotten those words.

PINK: How do you motivate your team?
M.W.: One of the wonderful things about working at mission-started organization is that the mission motivates everybody. It’s really great, as a leader, to come in and everybody understands why we are there. It’s about the girls. Besides that, if you provide [your team] with the opportunity to do something challenging, to lead in a new way and you have confidence in them, you are going to end up with a motivated team. I set high expectations, I support them through challenges. We tackle problems together and celebrate the business successes along the way.

PINK: How do you keep your Life/Work Balance?
M.W.: That’s a challenge today. One of my secrets is to know what feeds your soul, what rejuvenates you and what helps you stay grounded and be you. For me, it’s participation in the arts and in the theater – as an observer [laughs]. Also, to give back. I am involved with a couple of organizations here in Chicago, The Goodman Theatre, a non-profit theatre, and North Central College in Naperville, and that work keeps me grounded. I also work out and spend time with great friends. When you are fortunate enough to surround yourself with friends who keep you motivated, have great conversations, you have the best thing going. I also sing – so my escape once or twice a week is to take singing lessons. Sometimes a song can be “my best friend” as a song I love states.

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