Leung, whose mother and grandmother were scouts before her, has what’s known as “green blood.” (Photography by Bill Wadman)

Chief of troops

New Girl Scout chief of staff Nhadine Leung, AB’90, bleeds green.

People always refer to the Girl Scouts as cooking, camping, and crafts,” says Nhadine Leung, AB’90. Others think of cookies. Yet as the newly appointed chief of staff for Girl Scouts of the USA—and a third-generation scout herself—Leung knows the real story. “What it really all boils down to,” she says, “is leadership.”

Celebrating its centennial this year, the Girl Scouts have 59 million living US alumnae. Former scouts include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and the late astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel into space. This year founder Juliette Gordon Low posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

An attorney and former urban planner, Leung credits scouting with cultivating her own civic-minded career. Since receiving a joint JD/master’s of urban planning from New York University School of Law and Wagner School of Public Service, she’s worked at nonprofits that leverage existing housing, cultural, and educational resources to build stronger communities. Her résumé includes time at a social-enterprise philanthropy fund and as chief operating officer for Living Cities, a nationwide consortium of foundations and financial institutions dedicated to improving urban neighborhoods.

As the Girl Scouts of the USA’s chief of staff, she oversees some 360 employees and a budget of more than $60 million at the New York headquarters. Among her main responsibilities is ensuring the organization’s 112 local councils—each is an individual 501(c)(3) with its own budget and governing board—work “as an integrated whole.” Recent efforts include realigning the local council network to better support volunteers and creating the Girl Scout Leadership Experience, a program that cultivates social awareness and taking action.

Leung also works closely with the Girl Scout Research Institute. For more than a decade the institute has surveyed 8- to 17-year-old girls around the country about topics such as health, politics, activism, and body image. A 2008 survey about leadership, for example, found that many girls find the traditional “command and control” style undesirable, yet they aspire to be leaders driven by personal values, ethics, and a desire for social change.

Scouts who serve

I’m often asked, “What did Girl Scouts give you? Why has it stuck with you?” Probably the most important piece is a real commitment to making a difference. There were a lot of opportunities that we had in girl scouting to do public service. That’s one of the most important threads throughout my career: commitment to community and public service.

Bleeding green

Girl scouting runs deep back to my roots. It’s in my blood. In the movement, people call it “green blood.” My grandmother was one of the original [international sister group] Girl Guides in Scotland. That was at the very beginning. … Then my mom was a Girl Guide in Canada. … I grew up as a Girl Scout and was also a [Girl Scout] Brownie troop leader in Brooklyn right after I graduated from the U of C. And I’m a lifetime member.

Once a scout, always a scout

Our Girl Scout leadership model is discover, connect, and take action. I’ve felt a very deep connection to this model in my own life. I think I wouldn’t have been surprised as a young Girl Scout to find myself as an adult in Girl Scouts.

Winds of change

The way that girls interact with the world is very different now. We have so many different kinds of media. The desire to connect, to drive relationships through various sorts of social media, as well as one-on-one and in person, gives us the opportunity to create community in a much bigger way. Girls have a much more global scale of thinking about social change than I think we did when I was young. The Girl Scouts has had to change as a movement to stay relevant. We have to move at the speed of the girl. And girls are moving fast.

Small world

Part of our leadership program is helping girls to think about themselves as global citizens. … We have a program, Destinations, that’s about giving girls opportunities to travel and do social project work, both within the United States and beyond. … One of the big events we just did in Chicago was the Girls’ World Forum. We had hundreds of girls from across the world, Girl Scouts and Girl Guides, coming together to work on and discuss issues of social change.

Why cookies count

The Girl Scout Cookie Program, which provides valuable skills and leadership opportunities to our girls, yields $760 million in revenues each year. All that money stays at the local level with the troop and the local council. Nationwide, girls receive an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the purchase price of each box sold. … Girls can use their “cookie dough” money to support local charities or take trips and other fun things. Each troop decides how to invest their money.

Training tomorrow’s leaders

We launched a cause campaign called To Get Her There. Our ambition is to achieve [gender] balance in leadership across the sectors within a generation. That means [providing] a lot more girls with the leadership experience they need as well as changing the context in which we as women work. What do we expect out of leadership? What do we expect out of our society to realize our full potential as a country? If we have a significant portion of our workforce who are not leading at the levels one would expect—and that we see in other countries—then we fall behind.