Rockland County resident by way of Brooklyn, Marie Reger took over this spring as CEO of Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson.
She leads an organization that, as the local charter for the national Girl Scouts of the USA organization, serves approximately 26,000 girls a year and about 11,000 adult volunteers in Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Rockland, Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties.
From the local organization’s offices, a former school building in Pleasantville, Reger spoke with Business Journal reporter Ryan Deffenbaugh about the Girl Scout’s focus on developing leaders, its embrace of STEM and the true value of the organization’s beloved cookies.
How did you get into the nonprofit field?
“I graduated with a degree in accounting and ended up working for a public accounting firm auditing nonprofits. I eventually was hired by one of my clients. I loved being in the nonprofit field because I felt that what I was doing in the finance office, while it wasn’t necessarily directly service related, I was helping others in some fashion.
In the different nonprofits I’ve worked for — senior citizens, the homeless, substance abuse and behavioral health issues, children and child welfare systems — I ended up running the gamut through many different types of missions.
The nonprofit world wasn’t my initial plan, but you wind up where you’re supposed to be.”
How did you end up here leading Girl Scouts Heart of Hudson?
“When I saw the position for the Girl Scouts … I jumped at this chance. I was so excited.
I had been a Girl Scout, my daughter is actually a fourth-generation Girl Scout, since my mother and grandmother were both Girl Scouts in Brooklyn, as I was. The idea of being part of an organization that is for girls, making girls better leaders and for the future of girls in this country, is amazing.”
Girls Scouts as an organization has been around more than 100 years. What’s changed in that time? What things have remained the same?
“The girls are still involved in community service. That has stayed the same. But it’s how they do it that has changed. Girl Scouts have always been involved in the outdoors, but now we are able to do high-ropes courses. For Heart of the Hudson we have our own ropes course in one of our sites.
The theme has stayed the same. The importance of it is that girls are able to do this in an all-girl, girl-led program. Where they are free to explore, free to fail in a safe environment and have the support of their sister Girl Scouts.”
Are there ways Girl Scouts has to change or things it needs to do to be around for another 100 years?
“Yes, and I think we are doing that. Girl Scouts is always changing. We change based on what the needs of our girls are. Girl Scouts USA has a research institute, which works with girls to figure out what their interests are, what they like and what problems they might be having at that point in their life. Girl Scouts adapts to what the girls want.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a huge part of what we are doing. Just this week (July 17), they announced 30 new STEM and outdoor badges for Girl Scouts ranging all ages.
That’s recognizing that girls can do anything and that STEM is important for the future. When you look at where the careers are going to be, in many cases it is in STEM. A lot of studies have shown that girls have not jumped into those areas. So one of the things we want to do is empower the girls to learn about those things for the future workforce of America.
We also do large-scale surveys. That’s where much of the STEM programming has come in. Girls want to be doing STEM and they want to be outdoors. But then you also want to make sure you have programming for girls who aren’t interested in those things, in which case we run a large gamut of programming every year. We actually want to increase the amount of programs we do each year, that’s one of the things I’d like to achieve, so that we have the outdoor and indoor, the first-aid, CPR, babysitting certifications.”
The Girl Scouts annual report has some amazing statistics: 55 percent of women in Congress are former Girl Scouts, 73 percent of senators. What accounts for that success in building leaders?
“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that when girls are in Girl Scouts, there is no barrier. They can do whatever they want.
There are tons of studies out there that talk about the fact that girls have to be given the opportunity in all-girl type environments to do that, without worrying about the societal pressures that can be in a co-ed environment.
I think it shows that for girls, when given the chance to lead, they will. And they succeed.”
What was your experience as a Girl Scout and how did it help get you to where you are today?
“We learned all sorts of things. It’s very different being a Girl Scout in Brooklyn than from a suburban area, especially back in the ’80s. They took us camping and for many girls in my troop that was the first time they had ever been in a rural setting. Building a campfire — you can’t do those things in Brooklyn, you’ll get in trouble (laughs).
We were able to go camping, work together to sell cookies. Our troop leader thought that we should learn to use power tools. We met at a local church, where there was a kitchen area that needed to be fixed up. We painted it, learned to use a drill. With supervision, of course. But it was important that we not be afraid to do something like that. It always stuck it my head that it was important to know how to use tools. I went home and said
‘Mom, I used a power drill today,’ which was pretty cool.”
You mentioned your daughter is fourth-generation Girl Scout. What do you hope she gains from the experience?
“Well I’ve seen, as she has been growing up, she’s very comfortable in her own skin and very confident. I think she has gotten a lot of that from the Girl Scouts. She has no problems stepping up and being a leader.
She just finished her freshman year of high school. She was going into a public high school after going to Catholic school all the previous years. She did not know a single person and she was not scared of it. She was full-steam ahead.
One of the first things that came up was that they needed a new student council for the freshman class. She said, ‘I’m going to go for it.’ She had the confidence. And I believe that a lot of that comes from the experience she has had with Girl Scouts.”
How many Girl Scout cookies are sold in the Hudson Valley each year? The annual report has a list of top sellers and it seems they sold just so many cookies (Heart of the Hudson’s top seller, Mia in fifth grade, sold 3,186 boxes).
“I can tell you that through Operation Cookie Drop alone, we had 105,000 boxes that were donated to the troops this year. I believe our overall cookie sales are well over a million.”
Are the cookie sales most important to the business and fundraising, or is it more important for the brand awareness that the cookies provide? The cookies are everywhere.
“They’re iconic. I think it is a brand awareness. And the fundraising aspect of it does help troops to do what they want to do. But the other thing that is really the most important piece of it, as we look at it, is that the girls are learning so much from the sale.
They prepare for the sales: How many cookies do they need to pre-order? They’re taking care of money, they’re doing the sales, they do them individually, in their neighborhoods, to friends, relatives. They are learning how to talk to somebody and ask ‘Would you like to buy some cookies?’
Say a girl is more introverted or shy, she can wind up having a conversation with somebody at a booth sale when someone is buying a cookie. There’s that automatic connection of someone wanting a Girl Scout cookie.
They’re learning all the facets of business. In business, you need to be able to talk to people, you need to be able to have conversations and you need to be able to ask for things. The worst is that people say no. That, to us, is the important part of it. That the girls are learning.
Our focus is, when you look at our mission, is to create girls of courage, character and commitment who make the world a better place.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.