Deborah Hearn Smith became a Brownie at age 5 and earned the highest award in Girl Scouting, the Curved Bar (now the Gold Award), at 17. Now she helps enrich the lives of more than 40,000 girls as CEO of Girl Scouts of Central Indiana.
Her job, however, goes well beyond distributing merit badges. Running an organization that employs 200 permanent and seasonal staff and operates on a $10 million budget, Smith helped lead a massive realignment of councils—leading to annual savings of more than $1 million.
She’s pushed to remove barriers to entry for girls, reaching out to underserved communities with such programs as Latinas Taking the Lead. She can now proudly claim that one of every six Hispanic girls in central Indiana is a Girl Scout.
“Some people don’t understand the depth and breadth that our programs go—from very high-tech to adventure, from space camp to craft projects in a basement,” said Smith. “We serve girls in housing projects where this is their only outlet, and we also serve the daughters of some of the most influential people in the area.”
A commitment to inclusion has helped Girl Scouts dodge some of the criticism lobbed at their male counterparts.
“It’s fundamental to who we are,” said Smith. “We’re open to all girls from all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds across socio-economic lines. When girls see us, she sees herself.
“A lot of social issues are grounded in family values and in faith,” she added. “We’re very clear that faith and family are critical. But we don’t try to espouse our values. We encourage girls to work in their faith tradition—to understand the values and teachings of their faith and the great women in their faith. Whatever that is, we respect it.”
From a young age, Smith—the daughter of a Girl Scout leader—knew she wanted a career she felt good about. “Something where,” she said, “at the end of the day, I knew I was helping someone. How that would manifest, I didn’t know.”
She earned her undergraduate degree from Kentucky State University, an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University, and a certification in not-for-profit management from Harvard University. A believer in life-long learning, she also has taken continuing education courses at Wharton School and elsewhere.
Working in outdoor camp programs, directly with girls, inspired her. She moved on to the management and technology side, all the while slowly ascending the leadership ladder, acquiring skills that proved useful when she landed the top spot.
Smith said the biggest challenge is fundraising.
“We in Girl Scouts have a tradition of living within our means,” she said. “Sometimes that means not being able to expand in areas we’d like to.”
But what about the cookies? “Everyone knows we have the cookies in the first quarter,” she said. “And that’s great. But there’s a misconception that that’s all we need. We need more corporate sponsors who contribute because they believe in girls and can help us expand our programs and our reach.”•
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