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What can Girl Scouts do for girls? Ask Buffalo’s Zandra Cunningham

What does today’s Girl Scout look like? Meet Zandra Cunningham.

At 15, with jeweled magenta eyeglasses and a trademarked signature, Zandra already knows the power of her brand. Her name graces bottles of lemon tea tree hand lotion and mint vegan body wash in shops across Buffalo and in five different states. She’s spoken before 1,300 teens and traveled to Mexico to tell her story to a network of independent business owners.

Girl Scouts still have cookies and badges and campfires. Girls still make new friends and keep the old. But, like Zandra, they’re also writing business plans, learning to speak out and finding out what it means to be an agent of change.

The organization founded by Juliette Gordon Low in 1912 has spent the four years since its centennial celebration dusting off its image to keep up with the ever-increasing demands on today’s girls that have drained members across the country.

The Girl Scouts have pushed cookie sales online, revamped badges and are rolling out new ways to engage customers so that girls and troop leaders can spend more time on the fun stuff and less time on paperwork.

But what may be the best hope for updating and marketing the Girl Scouts to a generation of girls steeped in technology and opportunity harkens back to the organization’s beginnings.

Girl Scouts learn how to lead.

“We’ve been doing it for 104 years,” said Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. “It’s in everything we do. It’s girl-led, and so from their perspective, they’re practicing leadership on a daily basis.”

Chavez was in Buffalo and Rochester last week to visit the Girl Scouts of Western New York and speak at the group’s annual leadership luncheon. It was there that Chavez met Zandra, a Nardin Academy sophomore who launched a line of natural lip balms and shea body butters just shy of her 10th birthday.

Zandra has expanded into a commercial studio, rebranded her products under her first name and picked up a social cause – using some of her earnings to support efforts to educate girls.

And, in her spare time, Zandra is a Girl Scout who has become an ambassador of sorts for teens thinking of becoming entrepreneurs. With green high-heeled sling backs and a cream blazer, Zandra wasn’t shy about interacting with a bunch of adults last week at a reception for Chavez.

It wasn’t always that way. She’s had to learn that part of selling her Zandra line of beauty products is speaking up and putting herself out there as a community leader.

“That’s years of practice,” Zandra said with a laugh. “When you have a business, people want to know your story.”

That’s exactly the kind of girl power that Chavez points to as she travels the country telling an updated story of what the Girl Scouts can be for today’s young girls.

“It’s her ideas,” Chavez said of Zandra’s work as a Girl Scout. “It’s her path.”

Chavez, a Yale graduate who once worked for the White House, is troubled by what is keeping more women from reaching the top levels of government, community and business. Many girls, she said, are still getting the wrong message about how they should act and what roles they should take.

“When a girl, who is inherently wired to try to problem-solve to be helpful, starts raising her hand too much in class, she gets that moniker of being too bossy or sharing too much of her opinion,” Chavez said. “What we’ve found is, both with our research and other research across the country, is that when you have a girl in an all-girl environment, she will take more opportunities to try new things.”

In Girl Scouts, she said, girls can feel safe to try out a leadership role, fail and try again.

“It’s an environment where it’s OK to fail and it’s OK to take risks,” Chavez said.

Girl Scouts will have to continue to embrace technology and update the organization to keep up with today’s girls. But what will ultimately keep them interested is the same thing that drew many of us into scouting when we were young: campfires, yes; crafts, yes; but also the opportunity to make their own path.

email: djgee@buffnews.com

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