Boston Speaks Up (BSU) is a podcast owned and operated by Value Creation Labs.
Barbara Fortier is the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (GSEMA) where she has over 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Before assuming this role, she served as Chief Operations Officer at GSEMA for an impressive 17 years.
Fortier's influence extends beyond her impressive tenure at GSEMA. She is a specialist in volunteer management, fundraising, and female empowerment, making her a sought-after expert in her field. As the CEO of the largest girl-serving organization in Massachusetts and the 10th largest Girl Scout council in the nation, Fortier's mission is to create girls of courage, confidence, and character who contribute positively to the world.
Her impact isn't limited to her professional role; it resonates within the Greater Boston community. Fortier is deeply passionate about spreading leadership opportunities to women of all ages and backgrounds. Her commitment to female empowerment shines through every facet of her career and personal life.
Fortier recently penned an op-ed in the Boston Business Journal about how Girl Scouts addresses the youth mental health crisis. We explore this topic and much more in this latest ‘Boston Speaks Up’ episode.
Here’s a teaser video clip from the episode:
Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?
I grew up in Tewksbury, MA. My parents bought a modest home and raised my sister, brother, and I. Our neighbors and friends referred to us as the Richie Cunningham family (from Happy Days) because we were close and there was little drama or problems growing up. Our friends
and extended family spent a lot of time in our house as my parents loved to entertain and enjoyed having people around.
Can you tell us about your journey with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts and what inspired you to dedicate your career to this organization?
I refer to myself as the accidental Girl Scout as I had never been a Girl Scout as a youth. I got involved as an adult when a friend mentioned the possibility of joining the Board of Directors for what was then known as Patriots’ Trail Girl Scout Council. At that time, I had left a for-profit, high-tech company soon after a successful going-public event, and had decided to take some time off to explore other options. Little did I know how invested I would become in the mission of Girl Scouts. After serving one year on the Board, I began to do some pro-bono information technology consulting which resulted in an offer to join the staff as the Chief Information Technology Officer. I imagined being in this role for two or three years, but here I am 23 years later, and I have never looked back or had one ounce of regret for this choice.
As the CEO of one of the largest Girl Scout councils in the country, what do you see as the most significant challenges and opportunities for empowering young girls today?
There are many after-school activities for girls today including dance, sports, and other very specific programs which make it hard for caregivers to decide where to invest their child’s energy. While there are many choices, there is only one activity/organization that provides the full spectrum of exploration and leadership experience for girls to empower themselves and reach their full potential. The all-girl environment of Girl Scouts offers a safe space for girls to build confidence, practice courage to try something new, and develop character through taking healthy risks. This is the mission of Girl Scouts, and we spend considerable time educating caregivers on the long-term benefits of their child’s participation in Girl Scouting.
You've been a leader in the nonprofit sector for over two decades. What leadership principles have guided you throughout your career?
I had many mentors in the earlier stages of my career and learned valuable lessons that helped me hone my leadership skills. First and foremost, I learned about strong work ethic and commitment to a job well done from my parents who worked incredibly hard to give my sister, brother, and me an excellent childhood. Seeing how hard they worked and how much personal satisfaction they gained was the first step in my leadership development. Once I entered the workforce, I was able to expand my horizons and count communications, problem solving, time management, decision-making, prioritization, delegation, strategic thinking, and project management among the skills that have helped me excel. One key leadership quality that has served me well in all of my previous and current jobs is authenticity. I am a take charge person and get things done by being open and transparent about the objectives of my actions.
Can you share a memorable success story of a young girl whose life was transformed by her involvement in the Girl Scouts?
I have a niece, Katie, who as a young child was incredibly shy and withdrawn even with her immediate family. Her mom asked me if Katie should join Girl Scouts to help her with her shyness. I responded enthusiastically having seen its tremendous impact on helping girls step out of their comfort zones. Katie joined a Girl Scout Brownie troop in her town and seemed to enjoy herself. And, she made new friends which is the most compelling aspect for girls at the Brownie age range (5-6).
The following year, Katie wanted to go to summer camp which was a huge step and one that her mom was very concerned about. I signed her up and drove her to camp on her first day and stayed around in case she did not want to stay. Finally, around 4 PM, I asked the camp director where she was, and she pointed over to a field where girls were playing. She said that Katie not only had a great day but that she was leading the group in a dance and song activity. I was stunned! After Katie was dismissed for the day, on the way home, I asked her about her experience. She could not stop talking about all the fun and friends she made. She was beaming!
Katie asked me if it was okay to go back the next day. Her mom was near tears when I told her about how well she had done. It was as though a switch had been flipped.
When Katie was thirteen and was no longer in Girl Scouts, her mom told her that she needed to come up with an idea/project for the summer. Katie proposed making inexpensive mobile phone cases and worked with her mom (graphic arts/marketing executive) to create Cases by Kate. Her online business is still active, has customers from all over the world, and has generated tens of thousands in revenue. Katie’s mom totally credits her Girl Scout experience with her ability to run her own business.
Katie is now 23, and is a graduate of University of Maryland pursuing a career in marketing. Both she and her mom attribute Girl Scouts for the leadership skills she learned that helped her secure her job.
In your opinion, what role do organizations like the Girl Scouts play in addressing important social issues, such as youth mental health, as highlighted in your op-ed in the Boston Business Journal?
It would be impossible to expect that our youth members get the full benefit of our leadership development program if we did not also provide support and programming that helps them deal with mental health concerns. Our national organization, GSUSA, has very deep and broad research capacity and over the years has researched the impact of mental health on the overall development of girls which has influenced/enhanced the development of our core programming.
We also have invested in training for our staff and volunteers to ensure their ability to handle mental health issues appropriately.
Girl Scouts is a well-respected organization with over 100 years of experience in developing research-backed, relevant programming for girls, and as such is able to move mental health issues to the top of conversations happening at a national level which reduces the stigma and allows for much needed additional resources and education.
How do you envision the future of the Girl Scouts, and what initiatives are you most excited about in the coming years?
My vision for Girl Scouts is one that elevates Girl Scouts to be the preeminent leadership development organization for all girls who desire the experience. We are expanding our efforts to increase access to Girl Scouting in communities where it is underrepresented due to financial, social, and systemic barriers. Through focused community outreach and partnerships, we provide individualized assistance to underserved and under-resourced communities. This includes creating community specific solutions that support partners in bringing the Girl Scout Leadership Experience to youth who may not otherwise be introduced to Girl Scouts. One major initiative that will help advance awareness and visibility of Girl Scouts involves increased marketing efforts via radio, television, social media outlets as well as being present in communities to show firsthand what the Girl Scouts is about. Another initiative is to reduce participation barriers by providing program experiences to Girl Scouts right in the communities we serve.
We are also in the process of procuring a large van to create a mobile STEM lab that will bring hands-on STEM activities to Girl Scouts and prospective members. The mobile STEM lab will provide girls with amazing STEM learning opportunities locally across eastern Massachusetts.
As a leader in female empowerment, what advice do you have for women and girls who aspire to make a positive impact in their communities and beyond?
First and foremost, I would tell them that they need to think long and hard about what inspires them and where they would like to have impact. Once they have an idea, they need to do research and begin to craft their story so that they can “go out” and cultivate support for their plan whether it is a project or job opportunity they want to pursue. In many cases, they may need family, friends, mentors and other specific professional support to help move their plan from paper to reality. They will need to map out all aspects of their plan so that their resources know how they can help. This can be a long process so they need to gather up patience, endurance and positivity to enable them to keep on track. Connecting with a mentor who can work with them over a significant period will also be helpful and will provide a consistent resource for feedback and growth strategies.
Tell us about a particularly challenging moment in your career and how you overcame it. What did you learn from that experience?
Three years ago, I was happily ensconced in the role of Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the Girl Scouts of Eastern MA. At that time, I had been the COO for nearly 18 years and was very comfortable and felt very accomplished in the role. The CEO at the time left the organization and I volunteered to help in an interim capacity until a search for a permanent CEO could be done. I should also mention that this was in the early stages of COVID and I felt that I could be a stabilizing element in the role since I had been with the organization for 18 years and had pretty deep knowledge of the inner workings of the organization.
I am an introvert and many of the aspects of the CEO role were outward facing and required a significant amount of meeting prospective donors, speaking at events and other activities that pushed me well out of my comfort zone. It was the first time in a number of years that I experienced imposter syndrome and it felt very uncomfortable and jarring.
I was very fortunate and got plenty of support from family, friends, staff and from consultants who prepped me with media training, speech delivery, and other leadership elements associated with being the CEO. I was a good student and was very open to utilizing the resources made available to me. Over time my confidence grew and I felt fairly comfortable that I could provide value and leadership to the organization. After three months as the interim, I was voted the permanent CEO by the Board of Directors which is something I never saw in my career path but am fortunate to have stepped in.
In your view, how can parents and mentors support girls in pursuing leadership roles and embracing their potential?
Be involved with their lives, listen to them and help them articulate their dreams and desires. Removing roadblocks and providing constant encouragement are keys to helping their girls succeed. Be involved in their Girl Scout experience as it will provide information and ideas for ways that help parents, guardians and mentors maximize their influence and support. Reach out to other parents and guardians who are in similar situations in trying to help their girls excel. Sharing ideas and providing peer to peer support will be invaluable. We hear pretty regularly from current GS parents, that peer to peer support has been the difference in being successful at working with their girls on their career paths.
Finally, can you share your vision for the legacy you hope to leave behind in your role as CEO of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts?
It is my hope that my legacy is one of total commitment and support of the Girl Scout mission to provide leadership development experiences to all girls that want it. I have loved being a part of this organization and am grateful to have worked with many wonderful staff, volunteers, girl members and their families, Board members and other vested parties that are all aligned with the mission. In the CEO role, I hope I am remembered for my authenticity and for being a steady, reliable, hard-working leader in the very uncertain times of the pandemic. There is more to do as we move forward to set the bar higher for the experiences we will provide to our girls.
FINAL QUESTION: We like the idea of ending our episodes with a challenge for the listeners/readers. Whether it be reaching out to an old friend, reading 5 pages a day from a book, creating a new healthy habit… What is one challenge you have for the listeners?
My call to action for your listeners/readers would be to seek out a girl that you know (family, friends, neighbors, etc.) and chat with them to find out what kind of support they need in their life. Many girls desperately need mentors who will help them sift through the myriad of decisions and choices they need to make as they grow and mature. You could be that support person, and I guarantee that you will get as much or more out of the experience as the girl. There is no greater feeling than to have helped a girl on her life journey.