Jennifer Bartkowski, CEO, Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas.
Photos by Kim Leeson.
Through Girl Scouts, Jennifer Bartkowski learned how to make friends and how to be a friend.
Through Girl Scouts, she learned to manage time and money. She learned leadership skills and how to adapt to change. And she learned to love and respect nature.
“I was a Girl Scout through ninth grade,” Jennifer said. “My mother was my leader. Her mother was her leader. Scouting was a big part of our youth. I’m the oldest of five children, four girls and one boy, and all the girls were Girl Scouts.”
She continued: “Girl Scouts and competitive swimming were my foundation. They made me who I am today.”
Who Is Jennifer Bartkowski, Today?
She is the CEO of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas. And while much has changed — with Girl Scouting, in the world, and amongst girls — the core tradition of the 110-year-old organization remains the same: Helping girls become the very version of themselves they can be.
“I want girls to get confidence, to develop it in themselves,” Jennifer said. Her Council spans 23,000 square miles and 32 counties; and includes 19,000 members, 150 full- and part-time employees, and 8,500 volunteers. “What I’ve always gone back to: I’m going to make the best Jennifer Bartkowski I can be. I’ll make a terrible somebody else.”
How Jennifer’s Helping to Transform the Council
She does her utmost to ensure each girl is a person in her own right as well as part of a huge, caring, nurturing, and challenging group. In the past several years, Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas has persevered. Membership dropped 24% during the pandemic, but that’s only made the Council more determined.
“Because of it,” Jennifer said, “we’re reimagining Girl Scouts now.”
They’re reaching out to communities, schools, and families.
“Instead of saying, ‘Here’s Girl Scouts, take it or leave it,’ we’re saying, ‘How can we partner with you to be the best organization for your girls?’” Jennifer said.
She continued: “That’s making us question our own orthodoxies and what we believe to be true about ourselves. There are no rules. We can be whoever we want to be. We’re doing a lot more listening than talking. We’re engaging with communities differently. We’ve done an inordinate amount of DEI work.”
Under her leadership, the Girl Scouts are tackling topics were once were hardly more than whispers, and certainly not discussed in public: Topics like depression, suicide, and gender identity are now freely discussed and taken very seriously.
“The mental challenges our kids were very, very hard,” Jennifer said. “We needed places where girls could show up and talk. We continued as much as we could to have troop meetings, virtual or outside.” Around that time, the Council launched its own “It’s OK to Say” patch, offering a tangible outcome for those expressing and deciphering their feelings. The youngest Girl Scouts are talking about emotions, Jennifer said; the older ones, about challenges they’re facing.
“We heard a lot from adults and from girls about how good it was to have such outlets,” she said. “Outside of the troops, we created time to let the girls feel they belonged. We found that’s what girls want more than anything: To connect with one another. We’re trying to provide an environment and space where they can be together. It might be at a troop meeting, at camp, or at a program we host.”
Jennifer continued: “We have a real intense focus on mental wellness: Meditation, deep breathing, a place to settle down your emotions. We have programs and activities that allow the scouts to do that.”
She’s proud of this, and understandably so.
Another major source of pride is the Council’s STEM Center for Excellence. The $15 million, 92-acre campus on what was formerly Camp Whispering Cedars in southern Dallas County is a living laboratory encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, or math.
Seeds for it were sown in 2010, when Texas Instruments approached the Council.
“‘We don’t have enough engineers,’” Jennifer recalled Texas Instruments telling her. “‘You have all the girls; can you make them engineers?’” Jennifer said that was the call for the Council to create a pathway to bring girls into STEM.
“We created the first engineering patch,” she said. “The first year, 8,500 girls earned it. We knew we were onto something.” Within the sprawling acreage at the STEM Center are trails, demonstrations, program facilities, a greenhouse, robotics, and drones – anything, she said, you could imagine.
The facility has a 40-member advisory board; girls can visit with their troops or on their own. They can go on weekends, during the summer, and after school.
Hundreds of corporations and nonprofits are working with the Council to help make dreams a reality.
In 2018, Ericsson, the telecommunications company, began offering scholarships and paid internships to girls who completed their Gold Award program with an emphasis on STEM.
All the Council is doing to support girls caught the eye of Mackenzie Scott, the former wife of billionaire Jeff Bezos. Scott donated an unprecedented $3.8 million to the Northeast Texas Council of Girl Scouts, part of $84.5 million she donated to the Girl Scouts of the USA in total. “She’s recognizing organizations that are making the world a better place,” Jennifer said. “I’m so honored and thrilled to have received this; it changes the landscape.”
Maybe the gift, as well as the strides Girl Scouting is making, can help change the perception of many people: That Girl Scouts are only cookies, camps, and crafts.
“Girl Scout cookies are the largest entrepreneurship program in the world,” Jennifer said. “Every Girl Scout owns her own business for six weeks a year. She learns goal setting, money management, and customer service.”
Jennifer has firsthand experience. Her family didn’t have a lot of money growing up; the only way could afford summer camp was to sell cookies, which she did. She loved camp and meeting new people there. And she loves that camping is a foundation of Girl Scouts. “This is the first generation to grow up almost entirely indoors,” she said. “We have a responsibility to get girls into the outdoors, where they can best learn leadership.”
As for crafts, they’re do-it-yourself activities. Think about YouTube videos on all sorts of such projects, or of everything that happens on house and gardening channels.
“Some people think we’re not necessary,” Jennifer said. “I want to flip that on its head. We’re 110 years old, so we have strength. We have strong financial stability and a commitment to evolution and what we need going forward. We’re continuing to evolve. We’re being the best version of ourselves we can be.”
Be sure to check out the Girl Scout Thin Mint Chocolate Cake recipe created by Chef Eric Carlson at the Dallas Omni Hotel. It’s to DIE FOR!