How selling Girl Scout cookies taught women important life lessons

Updated Jan 22, 2018
Margie Yansura, photographed in West Palm Beach, was a Girl Scout and Girl Scout leader. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post)

They are a dream sales force, about 8,000 highly motivated individuals. From a few week’s work, they make more than $6 million locally each year. They’re meticulous, courteous and responsible.

And they have cool sashes.

They’re the Girl Scouts of America, of course, and they hit the streets, the sidewalks in front of grocery stores, their parents’ places of employment and anywhere else people are hungry to sell Girl Scout Cookies - about 1.5 million boxes locally. But the yearly cookie sale, happening now in the local council of the Girl Scouts of Southeast Florida, does more than satisfy the public outcry for Thin Mints and Tagalongs.

RELATED: Local Girl Scouts debate whether to join Boy Scouts organization

Selling cookies provides its tiny saleswomen the opportunity to basically run their own microbusinesses, rustling up sales, managing inventory and delivering it on time. And for several local former Scouts, selling cookies taught them invaluable lessons they’ve used professionally and beyond.

“It was my first business experience,” says Margie Yansura, of West Palm Beach, now the owner of a public relations firm and a former Girl Scout in Taylor, MI. “My dad had a home office, and I remember sitting at his desk in the basement (compiling) a list of leads. There were 84 kids on my block, some of them Girl Scouts, so there was a lot of competition. You had to know who to target.”

“The best lesson that I learned while selling cookies is that ‘no’ does not mean ‘never,’” says Bernice Shed, a West Palm Beach native, a freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York and a Girl Scout for 11 of her 19 years. “Often in life people are discouraged by the word ‘no’, but selling cookies taught me that ‘no’ does not mean to give up. One potential customer saying no did not stop me from asking the next.”

Local Girl Scout council executive director Lisa Johnson backs up their assertions that the annual cookie sale provides enbryonic business “training for girls. Not only do they learn valuable skills like budgeting, money management and marketing, they gain confidence and leadership skills with each and every interaction with their customers.”

Dorothy Jacks agrees that selling cookies “really helped make you responsible,” a trait she carried into her current job as the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser. A former Brownie in Jamaica, she says cookie sales instilled the importance of self-presentation.

“You went up to people’s doors and knocked on them and had to stand there, standing straight up. You had to say hello and that you were a Brownie. You always wore your uniform,” says Jacks, who was raised in Jamaica and lived there until she was 11. “I went with my friend Natalie, and one of our moms would stay in the car. People always bought them. Being a little, little child and knocking on an adult’s door builds a sense of maturity. You have to learn how not to be shy, and (to be) polite. That’s a big part of public service, to be polite to everyone, to say things clearly and be responsible.”

For Girl Scouts, the entire program is about establishing skills like organization, collaboration and confidence. That’s something Yansura says was passed down to her as a Scout, and which she passed down to her daughters as their Scout leader “and that my granddaughter hopefully learns one day. It gives you good female role models, seeing an organization run by women, and stresses to girls that they’re the ones that make the decisions for the troop, like ‘Do you want to go to camp?’”

Before Deborah Searcy was on the faculty of the Department of Management Programs at Florida Atlantic University College of Business, she was a Girl Scout in Arcadia, Ca. Cookie sales fueled her entrepreneurial spirit, as did the encouragement of her mother, Christine Schehr, who “was not the ‘stand in front of the grocery store type.’

“We would get out there and hit the streets. I remember going door to door by myself, on a little street that was very safe, ringing the doorbell and asking if they wanted to buy. You were carefully tabulating, doing the record-keeping and the math on the sales tax and making change. That level of responsibility for a 10 year-old is mind-boggling now. It was such an important life lesson.”

The math was instrumental to Bernice Shed, recipient of the Gold Award, the highest honor in Girl Scouting (think the Eagle Scout honor in Boy Scouts.). Not being discouraged by hearing “no” while hawking Trefoils resonated with her at a point in high school.

“I wanted to take two math classes, Geometry and Algebra II, so that I would be able to take an AP math class my senior year,” she recalled. “I had a teacher discourage me and tell me that it was not a good idea and that I shouldn’t do it. Thankfully, I remembered that ‘no’ does not mean ‘never’, or in this case, impossible; and so with the help of my counselor and the two teachers teaching the courses, I was able to take both! I got above a 95 in both classes and even received the Geometry award that year.”

Of course, it’s harder to learn a life lesson when it comes with unpleasantness. Shed says she learned “to always be friendly and polite even when a customer said no or did not reciprocate the behavior. On multiple occasions I had customers tell me no at first, but they said they changed their mind because of my polite reaction, and so they bought cookies. When I got older and people would always say, ‘If someone mistreats you, do not get out of character’, I was like ‘I’m 13 steps ahead of you!’”

So the next time you walk past a folding table full of smiling Girl Scouts while on your milk and bread run, or meet them in your neighborhood, understand that you’re investing in more than a camping trip for them, or five extra pounds for you.

You just might be contributing to the first chapter of their business empire.