Forbes magazine named Anna Maria Chavez one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders for 2016 for transforming the world and inspiring others to do the same. The CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA shares the honor with the likes of Pope Francis, U2 singer Bono and billionaire Jeff Bezos who founded Amazon.com.
Chavez will deliver the keynote address during the ASU College of Public Service and Community Solutions Convocation Thursday, May 12 at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.
Chavez exemplifies public service. The Arizona native was once a Girl Scout and leads the 104-year old nonprofit with more than two million girls nationwide. She served in the administrations of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and President Bill Clinton and has volunteered her time with numerous nonprofit and civic organizations.
She grew up in Eloy, a small farming community 60 miles southeast of Phoenix. Chavez didn’t have to look far for a role model. She cits her grandmother and her mother, Maria, who ran a small nonprofit that helped migrant field workers. Her mother also ran for office at a time when few women, let alone Latina women, served in elected positions.
“I think that she will say that a big influence obviously was her own mother who was that role model growing up in Eloy,” said Tony Moya, manager of Latino Relations for Salt River Project.
As manager, Moya provided assistance to the nonprofit run by her mother. That’s how he got to know Chavez.
From Eloy, her family moved to Phoenix where Chavez graduated from South Mountain High School. Chavez earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a law degree from the University of Arizona. In the Clinton administration, she served as a legal advisor in the Federal Highway Administration and the Office of the White House Counsel to the President before becoming chief of staff within the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Chavez came back to Arizona to work for Governor Janet Napolitano in 2001. She first served as legal counsel and assistant director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security before becoming director of intergovernmental affairs and then deputy chief of staff to the Governor. Chavez moved to San Antonio to lead a regional Girl Scouts office before accepting the position of CEO based in New York City.
Chavez is credited with helping invigorate the century old nonprofit. Under her leadership, Girl Scouts now focus on girl in grades K -5 as one group and older girls as another. The organization also opened up volunteer positions beyond the mothers of scouts. It began the sale of its famous Girl Scout cookies online and now offers badges for STEM education and financial literacy.
Moya says there are two things that really stand out about Chavez.
“First and foremost, family is the most important thing to Anna Maria,” Moya said. “And that would be her mother, her father, her son and her husband.”
Despite a job that frequently takes her away from home, Chavez stays in constant contact by phone, text and video chat. She also sets aside Sundays for family and her faith. She teaches Sunday school.
The other thing Moya says people never forget about Chavez is her infectious smile and a voice and laugh that can be loud at times.
Moya tells the story of being invited to the White House for a Cinco de Mayo celebration where he and his partner spotted Chavez who wasn’t expecting them.
“I didn’t want to go up to her, I wanted to surprise her,” Moya said. “So, she turns around and in that full Anna Maria voice she says, ‘Oh, my god it’s Tony and Jimmy!’ And everybody turns around. So, even if we’re trying to behave at the Rose Garden at the White House, she is still that same person where ever you see her, where ever you meet her.”
That genuineness is real, said Moya, and one of the reasons she is held in such high regard.
Her visibility as Girl Scouts CEO also makes her a role model, something Chavez does not shy away from. Moya witnessed her in action while going to dinner at a national conference in New Orleans.
“So, these Girl Scouts spotted her, ‘Oh my God, mom, look who it is!’” recalls Moya. “She’s like a rock star. She stopped and gave them her full attention. That’s Anna Maria.”
Retired Army National Guard Brigadier General Greg Maxon relied on Chavez during his stint as director of Veterans Services for Governor Napolitano. He had been brought in after a previous director resigned following allegations of neglect and nepotism at the state veteran’s home in Phoenix.
“Anna was the person that I had to work with in the Governor’s office to straighten things out,” said Maxon. “And she was there by our side the entire time. She made sure that we knew we had her support. She was ready to lend a hand, pitch in, whatever needed to be done to address the issues. She was just a great person to deal with.”
One of the biggest obstacles Maxon faced was dealing with the morale of employees at the state veteran’s home. He credits Chavez for helping convince employees to believe in themselves and their work.
“They had just been so beaten down by a lot of things,” recalls Maxon. ”But we were able to get in there and get these people thinking that we could fix this. And that was the thing that Anna really helped me with. She came over to the home on a frequent basis. She met with the veterans. She brought the governor over several times so there was some face to face time so the folks over there knew they were important to the state. That was the kind of leadership that Anna brought, at least, to my environment.”
Maxon did have one problem with Chavez. They went to rival law schools.
“I’m a Sun Devil. She’s a Wildcat. But, we got along great,” laughs Maxon.
The Arizona National Guard awarded Chavez the Adjutant General's Medal and the Diversity Champion Leadership Award, one of many that recognizes her work.
Chavez received the 2013 Excellence in Community Service award from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the 2013 Graciela Olivarez La Raza Award from the the National Council of La Raza. She received the 2013 Law College Association Award from her alma mater, the James E. Rogers College of Law. Chavez has also been recognized as one of the 100 Women Leaders in STEM. This year, Forbes Magazine named Chavez one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She ranked No. 24.