When she was a young Brownie growing up in Golden, Colo., Madhu Bajaj didn’t understand why her parents wouldn’t fall in line with her Girl Scouts cookie sales strategy.
“It started with a bit of a heartache,” said Bajaj, now 40. “I was the only one in the troop whose dad wouldn’t take the cookie form to the office.”
Her parents insisted she sell the cookies herself so they didn’t rob her of an opportunity to learn how to run a business. They would support her, and help with a business plan, but the cookie sales were up to her.
“Mom and Dad totally supported me in strategies that I would implement,” Bajaj said. “They would help me set my goals of how many cookies I wanted to sell.”
Girl Scout Sunday — Bajaj and other former Girl Scouts look back at how those fledgling entrepreneurial skills helped them become the professional women they are today. Bajaj said that early cookie sale experience helped her as she became the administrative director of the new Ventura Botanical Gardens after spending years as the executive director of the Ventura County AIDS Partnership.
“That’s what the whole cookie program is about. It’s a business,” Bajaj said. “You figure out your marketing — who your customer is.”
Girl Scout Sunday launches Girl Scout Week, which is highlighted by the Girl Scouts’ 101st anniversary March 12. That’s the day founder Juliette Gordon Lowe officially registered the first 18 Girl Scouts.
Thousand Oaks City Councilmember Jacqui Irwin, 51, believes selling Girl Scout cookies helped her with skills she needed to run for office.
“You’re selling a brand,” she said. “When I was running for city council, I was selling my track record.”
Irwin was a Girl Scout from first through 11th grade, and later became a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop.
As a Brownie, she remembered going door-to-door in West Hills with her sister and two friends, towing cookies in a red wagon.
“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking,” she said of going door-to-door. “But you have to put on a brave front for the little sister.”
The five qualities Girl Scouts develop through cookie sales is part of the new cookie box design. They are: goal setting, decision-making, money management, people skills and business ethics.
“The cookie sales give girls the confidence-building element in which they present their case to an adult, tell them their goals and dreams and say, will you help me achieve those goals?” said Tammy Gentry, spokesperson for Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast, which includes Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. “That interaction is so powerful.”
The decision-making part of the process occurs when the Girl Scout troops use the proceeds from their cookie sales to fund a community project such as coastal restoration, taking a field trip or going to summer camp.
The girls attended “Cookie U” or “Cookie University” in which they learn how to run their business. Girl Scouts encourage parents to help, but not sell the cookies for the girls so the girls can benefit from the experience.
These days, Girl Scouts set up shop outside of grocery stores and malls, but when Bajaj was a Brownie and Junior Girl Scout in second through fourth grade, selling cookies involved cold calls, door-to-door. Her mom had an eye on her, but encouraged her to sell the cookies on her own.
“My mom followed me in the car with my sister strapped in the car seat,” Bajaj said. “While I had my little red wagon filled with cookies.”
Bajaj took the money management part of her business seriously, she said.
“I kept careful track to make sure I had collected the correct amount for the number of boxes sold,” she said. “I developed a strong sense of taking care of others’ money.”
The value held for Bajaj when she entered the nonprofit sector, which runs on donations.
Radio correspondent and account executive for Lazer Broadcasting, Maria Mayo, 30, was shy as a little girl. Both of Mayo’s parents were born in Mexico and spoke little English, so they wanted their children to have as broad an experience as they could, signing Mayo up for softball, ballet and Girl Scouts.
“I was the only brown girl in the troop,” said Mayo, who grew up in Oxnard. “When you know you’re a little different from anybody else, you’re scared to share because you don’t know how other people are going to react.”
Selling Girl Scout cookies helped Mayo embrace who she was, and learn to interact with different people ... although she does admit to consuming some of the merchandise.
“It was funny because I ate a lot of them,” she admitted. “I think it helped with my communication skills, and asking for what I want and need.”
She learned she loved talking to people, and making sales. Selling Girl Scout cookies was actually her second experience with sales, the first was selling boiled cactus, a dish from her parents’ native Mexico.
Today, she sells airtime and is an on-air correspondent for AM station 910, a Spanish language station.
Health insurance broker Diane Falcon, 55, of Camarillo, learned she was also a natural saleswoman when she became a Girl Scout.
“Selling cookies and calendars initiated my long selling and entrepreneurial career,” she said. “I learned to ask questions, listen and match products to services and needs.”
Matching peanut butter lovers with Do-si-do cookies and chocolate enthusiasts with Thin Mints prepared her to sell all sorts of products and services during her career including guppies, microwave ovens, shoes, advertising space, vacuum cleaners (door-to-door) and health insurance products.
“You earn people’s trust by listening and you ask them questions,” she said. “People say, ‘Do you have anything with chocolate?’ or ‘I’m a diabetic.’ You pull things out of them they didn’t realize were important to them.”
Like Irwin, Falcon became a Girl Scout leader, and still stays in touch with girls who have aged out of the Girl Scouts.
All the former Girl Scouts agreed the nutty, chocolate-y, buttery, sweet confections sell themselves, which made them a product they could believe in. Bajaj said the feeling carried over into her career running nonprofit organizations she believes in.
“The cookies were representing the cause of Girl Scouts, which I was connected to and really believe in,” she said. “If I’m passionate about something, I can ask for donations. It’s been life-changing.”