An American trailblazer leads on

I was fortunate enough to work with Secretary Napolitano from 2003 through 2009, during her two terms as Arizona Governor.  I enjoyed a front row seat as she dealt with issues ranging from immigration to budget shortfalls, taxes to national security.  I watched in awe as her profile grew from a southwestern politician to a commanding figure on the national and even the world stage.

Promoting the governor's policies, programs, and initiatives to a diverse Arizonian constituency, I learned a lot about the power of good government to transform lives and lift people out of difficult situations.  With her prodding, I developed my passion for youth service and development that has led me to my current post as CEO of the Girl Scouts.  Most of all, I learned a lot about leadership – about what it means to be truly devoted to a cause greater than yourself, and the sacrifices it takes to lead an organization through good and tough times.

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Like so many other female leaders throughout the country, Janet was a Girl Scout, and is today a lifetime member of our movement.  So it should come as no surprise that she was the first female valedictorian of her alma mater, the University of Santa Clara, or that she was only the third woman elected governor of Arizona; that she served as the first female chair of the National Governors Association, or that she was the first woman to lead Homeland Security.

Girl Scouting is a transformative experience for girls that helps them find their voice and unlock their leadership potential.  Throughout her life and professional career, Napolitano has been a trailblazer who has embodied the Girl Scout Promise and Law, living a life of courage, confidence and character that has made the world a better place. She has paved a path with her fearless, driven, and passionate nature as a woman willing to stand up for her convictions and advocate for her principles, often against long odds and in forums and arenas dominated by men. 

And she’s not alone – in fact, Napolitano is among a great many women leaders in this country, from business executives to nonprofit leaders to politicians, who were Girl Scouts growing up.  Girl Scout alumnae make up 70 percent of the female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list, and account for 70 percent of the women in the U.S. Senate and over 50 percent of female members of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

In addition to Napolitano, the Girl Scout leadership list includes Ellen J. Kullman, CEO of DuPont; news anchor Katie Couric; designer Vera Wang; the last three female Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeline Albright; Kathleen Sebelius, who serves alongside Napolitano in President Obama’s Cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human Services; the list could go on and on.

These women and many others like them, cut their entrepreneurial and leadership teeth as Girl Scouts.  Wherever we find female leaders in our society, we usually find one of the 59 million living alumnae who are a part of our Movement.  The skills they acquired and the values that were instilled in them through Girl Scouting has informed their careers and help shape the course of their lives, and by extension, our world.  Today, as Girl Scouting enters its second century in America, there are more opportunities for girls and young women than ever before.  Girl Scouting remains the single best leadership experience in the world for girls, with the capacity to leverage those opportunities to mold the next generation of female leaders like Janet.

Now, as she steps away from the beltway and the political bustle of Washington, what I will remember most about Janet Napolitano is not the governor or the secretary, or even the public figure – but the woman who inspired and encouraged me to find the leadership qualities within myself. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Napolitano is set to embark on yet another milestone setting journey in a career full of “firsts” – as the first female president of the University of California system.  The UC system is lucky to have her, and should be prepared for a level of dynamism and innovation they have never experienced before.  I have no doubt that she will leave an indelible mark in California, just as she has on Arizona, our country, and our world.

Chavez is CEO of the Girl Scouts of America.