Never underestimate a girl. More than once, I have witnessed a room full of executives react to the wisdom, maturity, and brilliance of girls who speak eloquently and with great awareness of the world. To that end, our board of directors includes girls. Their voices matter. This is their Movement. They shine in ways that make me so proud of who they are and the future of leadership in their hands.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Wright.
Nancy Wright is the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana and has a proven track record in leading cross-functional teams within diverse business environments, focusing on revenue results, developing new business and building brands.
Prior to joining Girl Scouts, Nancy served as president of Blue Plate Catering, Inc., overseeing the operations of a significant multi-million dollar business that provides upscale catering services to corporate, non-profit, social and cultural institutions; direct service catering to private homes and offices; a world-class restaurant; and management of Applause Food Operations for the Chicago Symphony Center.
She served on the board of directors for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago and is a member of the Advisory Council for the International Catering Association. She is a member of the Woman’s Athletic Club of Chicago, is a Girl Scout alumna, and was a Girl Scout leader and volunteer for six years.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
About eight years ago, after a career filled with unique and varied experiences, I was serving as a president of a company when my father asked me, “when you are my age, what will your legacy be and how will you have made the world a better place?” He was challenging me to think bolder, and beyond my own satisfaction and fulfillment.
Through some deep soul searching, I realized that I indeed had more to give, as well as grow as a true leader. Reflecting on my previous roles, experiences, and expertise, I decided to transition from the for-profit world and align my talent and heart to a mission that I believed in. Fortunately for me, I found the perfect match as the CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, leading the iconic nonprofit that impacts the lives of generations of girls and women.
Ironically, I have had countless, similar conversations with other executives during the pandemic. People are taking this moment in time to re-evaluate their life goals, reprioritizing what brings them joy while still providing for their families. During these soul-searching times, I encourage strong leaders to bring their experience and heart to a non-profit organization where they will discover what I did. Making a significant difference in the world is far more rewarding than only success.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Even pre-pandemic, with every interaction I had with girls, I felt a growing sense of urgency. I had been listening to girls share the challenges they were facing in their daily lives. Their stories illustrated for me that as girls grow up in this fast-paced world, they are under an inordinate amount of stress.
When people think of Girl Scouts, they think of girls wearing vests with badges earned on every subject imaginable or the delicious cookies we sell. These are things Girl Scouts do; they are not who we are — which reminds me of a life-changing story.
I attended an event with girls and volunteers several years ago. Many of the girls wore vests filled with badges. Off to the corner, away from the action, sat one volunteer. She watched as the girls in her troop interacted with the other girls and told me how bad she felt that her girls had not earned as many badges as some of the others. She explained that she was a leader for girls in middle school, and they were spending much of their time together talking about what the girls were experiencing in school and in their personal lives, even though others may have dismissed their challenges as ordinary milestones in the journey of adolescence.
These are the moments that matter to girls. According to the Pew Research Center, teen girls are now almost three times as likely as teen boys to have had recent experiences with depression.
The troop leader shared that the girls needed a safe space to discuss those experiences. I responded that she was a remarkable example of just what girls need, when they need it. I realized that too often we look at the surface accomplishments that define success. Success in this case was helping girls feel whole, valued, normal, and heard.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Shortly after joining the organization, some of the staff organized a “meet and greet” with the CEO for girls and their families during a program event. Staff started looking for me. Eventually they found me, sitting on the floor in a circle with a small ring of the smartest kindergarteners I had ever encountered. I did not want to be put on a pedestal because of my title. I was there to serve girls and advocate for them. The best way for me to orient to my new role was to engage in conversations with girls, at their eye level, and understand what their interests and needs were. My staff still reminds me of that moment, even years later. Listening to girls is the best part of my job. I call it “getting my girl fix” and it sustains me through any other challenges that arise.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Girl Scouts offers the best leadership development experience for girls in the world — one that is designed with, by, and for girls. We focus on skill-building programming for our girl members ranging from STEM and the outdoors to the development of life skills and entrepreneurship.
This year, our council is launching a new initiative that will revolutionize the field of youth development and globally impact the trajectory of leadership opportunities for girls and women of color. Our goal is to create a new Youth Development Center of Excellence to serve as a ground-breaking global hub of innovation, thought leadership, community involvement, and opportunities for girls of color and allies to build, exercise, and stretch their leadership muscles. With expertise and research from key partners, it will serve as a safe space, a trauma-informed community of mentors and experts who seek to nurture mental, social, and emotional well-being in a time of great need across our country.
For too long, women of color have been denied access to the highest levels of leadership. Women of color comprise 36 percent of our country’s female population and 20 percent of the entire U.S. population. We seek to positively impact a future defined by a diverse set of voices that represent not only racial diversity but also gender. The time is now to capitalize on increased awareness, reckoning, advocacy, and social justice being embraced by youth. According to our research, 6 in 10 girls are interested in being a future leader through advocacy, public service, or as an elected official. We must strategically work to heal from past racial trauma, create transformational change in institutions and power structures, and better advocate for girls and women of color as leaders in their communities and careers and as integral in universally redefining leadership.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Every year Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) recognizes 10 teen activists from across the country whose extraordinary leadership creates sustainable impact on pressing issues Americans face today. I’m so proud that last year (2020), one of our members, Therese Malinowski, from the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana (GSGCNWI) was recognized as a National Gold Award Girl Scout.
After someone she knew went through a sexual assault crisis in eighth grade, and knowing sexual violence affects hundreds of Americans every day, Therese became passionate about advocacy and justice to widen information access and discussion about this issue. She created a database that promotes sexual assault information transparency and safer schools to help students understand the reality of the issue. Her advocacy brought local and statewide attention to the issue, and the database currently is listed as a statewide sexual assault resource through an Illinois organization.
Therese’s accomplishment is just one example of how Girl Scouts provides young women with progressive opportunities to speak truth to power, challenge the status quo and take action to change the world for the better.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Girls’ lives are complicated. Society sends mixed signals to young women, often setting up unrealistic expectations of perfection and perpetuating fear of failure. Our goal at Girl Scouts is celebration of their dreams, not to dictate what those dreams should be.
To change this trajectory, there are some very tangible ways for people to get involved.
Mentor: This is the most accessible and direct way to impact a girl’s life. Research shows that having a caring mentor significantly shifts girls’ outcomes.
Invest: Girls need exciting, challenging experiences to nurture their leadership skills. Investing in organizations that champion girls is a very savvy way to solve our global workforce challenges, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math. Investing in girls’ leadership programs like the Girl Scouts also empowers the young women who will lead corporate boardrooms, addressing global challenges that require innovative solutions. Girls and women have always been a centerpiece of community health and wellbeing.
Listen: Young girls face many challenges when it comes to acceptance of themselves, especially in the ear of social media. We focus on making Girl Scouts a positive community for girls’ social and emotional well-being. Essential to that process is encouraging transparent, compassionate conversations between girls and their peers, as well as with adults.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to use courage, confidence and character in ways that benefit others.
There are countless examples of leadership within our organization’s history, but my previous story about Therese Malinowski I think exemplifies this perfectly. Therese’s continued commitment and involvement in Girl Scouts empowered her to break the status quo and become a leader and innovator with this revolutionary sexual assault database. What I love about Therese’s story is that she not only recognized a problem by reacting to a story and need from her peers but also felt compelled to make a change — that’s what true leadership is about.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Never underestimate a girl.
More than once, I have witnessed a room full of executives react to the wisdom, maturity, and brilliance of girls who speak eloquently and with great awareness of the world. To that end, our board of directors includes girls. Their voices matter. This is their Movement. They shine in ways that make me so proud of who they are and the future of leadership in their hands.
Honoring tradition and innovation are concepts that can co-exist.
During the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, we adopted a strong, can-do attitude just like our founder, Juliette Gordon Low, embodied. Within a few short weeks of sheltering in place, we transformed the essence of our program experiences to virtual. One of the very first programs offered was our successful “family camp-in” complete with breathtakingly creative and elaborate tents that the girls constructed in their living rooms with sheets and blankets. Parents, siblings, and grandparents joined their girls on screen singing traditional campfire songs. Technology connected us and grounded us in the comfort of our traditions during a very uncertain time.
Leading a nonprofit requires a full toolbox of business skills.
A non-profit’s human P&L is as important as its financial P&L. When I tell people that I am the CEO of a Girl Scout council, they often remark that it sounds like fun. That is certainly true, but it also takes far more creativity, business acumen, and endurance than people ever imagine. Our business includes managing a portfolio of properties, an entrepreneurial line of revenue, large goals for fund raising, investments in people and finances, and navigating relationships with board members and the girls themselves.
Passion runs deep in nonprofits.
Girl Scouts is a multi-generational experience. Traditions are passed from one generation to the next, while the girls themselves have very modern ideas about how we can support their dreams. Everyone views their experiences with us through a different lens, and we need to be attuned to meeting their expectations.
Non-profits serve a large customer base.
In Girl Scouts, our audiences include girls, families, volunteers, donors, partners, business leaders, community leaders, and alumnae. Every audience requires personalized interactions to ensure their experiences are rewarding.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The world should not expect women and girls to fit into a finite definition of leadership.
Leadership must reflect an equitable, inclusive journey where girls, all girls, ascend to their rightful place as innovators, leaders, and change agents. Our current thinking and practices must expand and evolve dramatically to thrive with a wide diversity of thought leadership and expertise at the decision-making tables across corporate America. Right now, women of color are incredibly underrepresented in the highest levels of leadership.
The process of inspiring girls with the capacity for leadership begins when they are as young as five. Girls from all communities, every zip code, every life situation need role models that look like them and a spectrum of experiences to develop their skills, an aptitude for innovation, and the ability to solve problems creatively.
Girls are at the center of everything we do. They are our guiding light. In Girl Scouts, we listen to girls, their ideas, their dreams, and guide them on a journey so they can grow into their best selves. It is not up to adults like me to set those expectations of what they should be, but rather to champion them and celebrate their ambitions. My role as CEO is to champion all girls and ensure they have full access to whatever they want to achieve in life.
With more investments in an equitable pipeline to leadership, we will inevitably set in motion positive changes that impact our communities, our country, and our global economy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou
My grandmother believed in approaching every situation with love in her heart and assuming good intent. Her way of looking at life left an indelible imprint on my own journey, especially in my work now as a non-profit leader in the business of inspiring young people to be their best selves.
Every decision I make, our strategy we embrace, has an impact on people. If they feel inspired, valued, and supported, even through times of great duress, then our results will be stronger. The heartbeat of our Movement will be stronger.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to engage in a conversation with Madeleine Albright. She is one of the great minds of our time. I have heard her speak, and I have read her books, and what I admire most is her artful balance of strength and compassion. That duality, that balance, defines her leadership style, and it affirms that those two elements of leadership need to co-exist. Leadership is not one-dimensional. It is nuanced, personal, and ever evolving.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My LinkedIn page is a great way to engage with me: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nancy-wright/ and readers can also follow our Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana social channels at: