Article by Sylvia Acevedo — keynote speaker, engineer, former NASA rocket scientist, former CEO of Girl Scouts USA
This Hispanic Heritage Month, I am privileged to not only share my journey, but to ignite the fire of potential in others by addressing corporate audiences across the globe. For every audience I address, my speech isn’t just a reflection of my path, but an invitation for everyone to realize that their dreams can also become their realities.
At first glance, my journey might appear improbable. Born to parents with deep-rooted ties to Mexico—one born there, the other in El Paso, Texas—I grew up under the starlit skies of the New Mexico desert. From that humble background, I became a trailblazer, from working as a rocket scientist on two NASA missions to then one of the first Hispanics to earn a graduate engineering degree from Stanford University. Just last year, I was profoundly honored to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Duke University, an institution where one of the executives I greatly admire for her leadership, GM’s CEO Mary Barra, serves as a Trustee.
In the workforce, my career evolution saw me progress from an engineer at NASA to a tech executive providing leadership for several leading tech firms, including Apple, Dell, IBM, Qualcomm, and Autodesk. I also served as a White House Education commissioner, then took the helm as the CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. I penned a middle school bestseller (Path to the Stars, Camion a las Estrellas) and now share my journey with audiences around the world.
Early on, I hadn’t fully grasped that each aspiration came with its unique hurdles. I deeply appreciated those of Hispanic descent who paved the way before me, setting the stage for opportunities, such as the pioneering “Si se puede!” Dolores Huerta, a lifelong sister Girl Scout. Yet for me, being a trailblazer, I became the first to tread on certain paths which came with its own set of unique challenges.
Sometimes, I had to carve out entirely new routes, ones no one had envisioned before, especially me. Many goals seemed elusive, requiring unyielding courage to continue the journey, confronting every barrier—be it finding a way through, rising above, or finding a detour. Some moments felt overwhelming, but each test refined my abilities, broadened my perspective, and intensified my resolve, grit, and tenacity.
The true success of a speech lies in its lasting impact on listeners. Recently, after addressing an international audience, a first line manager reached out, sharing: “After hearing you, I embraced an opportunity I’d typically shy away from due to self-doubt. It’s my initial step, and I am committed to more.”
The intricate tapestry of our lives is woven from the diverse threads of our background and heritages. Still, it’s the shared dreams we hold for ourselves, our careers and our families that truly bind us, forging a bond that enriches both us and the wider community. Witnessing someone from a similar background break barriers is profoundly inspiring. Such feats reinforce the belief that despite challenges, our intrinsic tenacity propels us past challenges, never losing sight or hope of achieving our goals.
Appointed by then President Obama to chair the Early Childhood Committee of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics, a pinnacle of my journey was championing the federal policy change for dual language funding in PreK. This significant policy shift, paired with the unexpected yet essential support of U.S Army General Raymond Ordierno, emphasized the importance of fluently bilingual military personnel in America’s defense. Thanks to this pivotal change, millions of children can now master English more rapidly while preserving fluency of their family’s native language. As a proud Head Start Alum, this is an accomplishment that I’m especially proud of.
Each of us has aspirations that are shaped by our decisions and actions. The first person you have to convince is yourself. Belief in yourself is the first step of the journey. If I could turn my dreams into reality, so can you. Let’s remember to share, learn, and uplift one another, proud of our rich Hispanic heritage and wisdom that lights the way for future generations, fueling dreams and charting new destinies for all.