Smart Cookies

More than a century ago, Juliette Gordon Low sparked a movement to inspire girls to embrace their strength and intellect. The Girl Scouts organization gave them a place of their own in a world of clubs for boys. February marks the middle of cookie-selling season; the organization’s largest fundraiser that teaches Girl Scouts goal setting, money management, and business ethics. Here, three local women share how spending their formative years as Girl Scouts led them to their entrepreneurial success. // Photographs Used by Permission of the Girl Scouts of the USA
Girl Scout cadettes, circa 1970, March in support of environmental cleanup.

Eldorado General Store really looks like a jewel box. While writers describe buildings this way often, this Corktown shop’s entrance, with its leaded glass surround, truly gives you the sense of walking inside an elaborate trinket case. There are so many intriguing vintage pieces and handmade items it’s hard not to get lost down a browsing rabbit hole. It’s been said that even pop star Kesha couldn’t resist leaving with an armful of vintage clothes before her tour moved out of town. Erin Gavle, 36, opened the doors at Eldorado in 2014 and credits her time as a Girl Scout for the drive and guts it took to bet big on brick-and-mortar retail.

Like many Detroit-area women and the country, Gavle spent formative years in the Girl Scouts of America, earning merit badges, learning life skills, crafting, camping, and, of course, selling an array of cookies. This month, cookie booths will be sprouting up all over and in March, the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan will host its annual cookie gala, touting the event at the MGM Grand Casino Ballroom, where Detroit’s finest chefs will compete against each other using a designated Girl Scout cookie as the main ingredient in their dessert. At the gala, attendees will have the opportunity to taste the creations to benefit the organization.

Brittany Rhodes, 34, recalls her mother’s efforts as a troop “cookie mom,” not once, but for three years running. “Our living room would be full of boxes,” she says. The Detroit native cites cookie sales inspiration for her educational and career choices. A graduate of Spelman College, Rhodes went on to earn an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, and put her knowledge to work for area nonprofits after moving back to Detroit in 2012. Most recently the Belle Isle Conservancy’s director of community engagement, Rhodes just left that position to create a new organization aimed at helping young girls access mathematics and improve their math skills. “It’s called Black Girl Mathgic. It’s a social enterprise,” she says. “We are going to be launching a subscription box. Each month, there will be a lesson, an affirmation to help girls feel confident about math, and a profile of a black female mathematician.”

FDR Service Check
A group of Girl Scouts presenting their service hours to then president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.

Rhodes also sees scouting as integral to her sense of pride as a Detroiter. After living in Atlanta and Pittsburgh for college and work, Rhodes realized she needed to make others see Detroit as worthwhile. “When I would tell people where I was from, I’d get mean comments about Detroit. I told a first-year student from Israel, and he said, ‘I heard it’s an urban wasteland there.’ It told me I needed to go back home and be a part of the solution.”

Gavle also credits scouting with teaching her to operate a small business, and with instilling a fierce commitment to leaving Detroit better than she found it. Before opening Eldorado, the lovingly restored building had long stood in disrepair, its glory days as a souvenir shop for Tigers Stadium long forgotten. Now, Eldorado flourishes in Corktown utterly unrecognizable as the desolate area it was before Detroit began its hard charge out of bankruptcy.

“This is such a personal journey, and the shop is based on my personal lifestyle,” Gavle says. “It’s not just a store, I hope — it’s about providing power to my community.”

To that end, Gavle has been active in Get Out the Vote events locally, offering discounts to those shoppers who come in with an “I voted” sticker. She also gave the neighborhood a gift in the form of a mural of a woman that takes up the full expanse of Eldorado’s sidewall. Gavle insists her experience as a Girl Scout influenced this endowment. “Everyone tells you, ‘Say nice things about Detroit.’ You have to provide nice things for people to say,” she says. “It’s a central idea in Girl Scouts — leave a place nicer than you find it.”

Sandie Baker, 56, the Eastpointe resident perhaps best known as a Jeopardy semifinalist in the 2014 Tournament of Champions, became a scout at age 11 when her family moved to New Jersey. Baker’s father moved often for work, and Baker says she felt lonely in her new school. She found friends in scouting, but also a surprising, delightful world of books and information. Many of her scouting projects often led to research, and Baker says, “I made like Hermione [from the Harry Potter series] and went to the library.”

“Everyone tells you, ‘Say nice things about Detroit.’ You have to provide nice things for people to say. It’s a central idea in Girl Scouts — leave a place nicer than you find it.”
— Erin Gavle

Scouting, Baker says, gave her the confidence to try new things, including jobs and activities seen as predominantly male-dominated. As a high school senior, her scores on military recruiting tests were high enough to command attention from recruiters with all four military branches, but she enlisted in the Air Force. “I wanted to be independent,” Baker says.

She also says she felt like the Bruce Springsteen song, “Born to Run” where she wanted to, … “get out while we’re young.”

During her four-year tour in the Air Force, Baker worked on radio equipment for C141 cargo planes. After marrying her husband, she moved to metro Detroit in 1992 and was until recently employed as a GM contractor, a position she held for 15 years. Times may be hard, with auto industry layoffs impacting many people in Detroit, but Baker remains positive. The tireless volunteer who has organized Red Cross blood drives, taught Sunday school for years, and raises donations annually competing in the Detroit Marathon’s half marathon says scouting makes girls independent.

“Scouting planted a seed of wanting to do things for the community, to be useful and helpful,” she says. She also adds that scouting has helped her throughout life in ways she’s only now beginning to recognize. “When I look back, it wasn’t that it affected me immediately, but I could see how it impacted me and planted a seed,” she says. “I learned to get along with people, to make a way.”

Rhodes echoes Baker’s sentiment, and hopes to inspire new generations of Detroit-area girls. “We have a duty and an obligation to go back and show the next generation how scouts helps us succeed, however we define success,” she says. “Girl Scouts played such a role in my formative years, it made me think I needed to come back and be a public servant for the community.”

Daisies on slide
A string of Daisies, the scout level for girls between kindergarten and first grade, descend a playground slide circa 1984.

Boys vs. Girls

Last fall, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America filed a trademark infringement federal lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America for dropping the word “boy” from its program to rebrand itself as “Scouts” in an effort to welcome girls into its ranks.

The Girl Scouts claim the move will “marginalize” the female organization and “erode its core brand identity.” In the lawsuit, the Girl Scouts accuse the Boy Scouts of infringing on its trademark, engaging in unfair competition and causing “an extraordinary level of confusion among the public.”

Also in the lawsuit, the Girl Scouts claim their right to use “scout” and “scouting” marks in marketing to girls has long been recognized both by the law and by the Boy Scouts. But the Boy Scouts’ decision to open its programs to girls has crossed the line.

As of press time, both sides were expected to meet with a judge last month.