“I feel like I was a Girl Scout my whole life, working to make the world better. I just didn’t have the opportunity to join as a girl,” says George Mason University alumna Lidia Soto-Harmon, MPA ’91.
Soto-Harmon is the chief executive officer of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, a position she’s held since 2010, and she was the group’s chief operating officer for six years before that. She says experiencing Girl Scouting through others, including her own daughter, has helped her appreciate its impact on young lives.
“My daughter was a Brownie and stayed a Girl Scout through her senior year of high school, so I’ve lived that experience through her and seen the incredible changes it’s had in her life. She just earned Girl Scouts’ highest honor, the Gold Award.”
Soto-Harmon has earned her own share of awards and accolades. In 2012 alone, she was named a Woman Who Means Business by the Washington Business Journal for her efforts in organizing the Girl Scouts’ enormous 100th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C., and was also presented a Regional Mujer Award (Woman of the Year) by the National Hispana Leadership Institute. She was included on the list of the nation’s top 90 mentoring leaders by Women of Wealth Magazine in 2011, the same year she was named Notimujer of the Week by CNN en Español for her work in reaching young Latinas.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Cuban-born missionary parents, Soto-Harmon grew up in Ecuador and El Salvador before returning to the United States at age 15. She received a BA from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and, while working at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., decided to pursue a master’s at George Mason. Although attending school while working full time was hard, she looks back on it as a truly positive experience.
“For me, working during the day and going to school at night was wonderful, especially for a master’s in public administration,” she says. “There were so many life examples at work that I could apply to my graduate studies and vice versa.”
For instance, she wrote a primer on trade negotiations for a class using examples and acronyms from her job as source material. When the primer was finished, she was in turn able to use it at work. “It was so helpful for my negotiating team to have a primer for all the things we were doing,” she says. “I mean, who has time to write a primer in the middle of these negotiations? Only someone who is working and going to school at night.”
Soto-Harmon attended Mason the same time as her husband of 27 years, Robert Harmon, MA Individualized Studies ’97. One of her fondest memories, she recalls, is of packing sandwiches for the two of them to share before their evening classes.
“He would pick me up from the Metro, and we’d go straight to campus and spread out a blanket and have our picnic before class,” she says. “Those early years of commuting together were such a fun time.”
She recalls Professor Alan Abramson’s business ethics class as one of the most useful. “He helped us understand the sort of pushes and pulls of what it’s like to run a business with a heart, if you will,” she says. “Now I think back on how useful that course and others I took really were. They gave me a structured way of thinking that was incredibly valuable.”
Bringing the experience full circle, Abramson has twice asked Soto-Harmon to speak to his MBA students. In fact, she’s collaborated many times with Mason in recent years. During basketball season, Girl Scouts perform at a halftime show for one of the women’s basketball games, and Mason has hosted a Girl Scout-sponsored conference for young girls with disabilities, Keys to Leadership. Most notably, Soto-Harmon developed Encuentro de Chicas Latinas de las Girl Scouts, a conference designed to inspire middle- and high-school Latina girls to recognize their own abilities by visiting college campuses. The conference has been held on Mason’s Fairfax Campus a number of times.
“Encuentro brings girls to a college campus, so they can see themselves there,” Soto-Harmon explains. “They see girls who look just like them and say wait a minute, I can go to college, too.”
Such programs are crucial to Girl Scouts, she says, as the organization works today to reach out to more girls of all ethnicities. “The statistics on Latinas are particularly alarming,” she says. “They have the highest suicide rate and dropout rate of any group in the country.”
Yet, she also points to a resiliency study the Girl Scouts conducted that shows how a high percentage of African American and Latina girls see themselves as leaders. “Many of them grew up in single head households and had to play leadership roles at a much earlier age than other girls,” she says. “That’s a positive thing, even with all the negative statistics there. It shows a huge leadership potential.”
Diversity is just one of the reasons Soto-Harmon is proud to call herself a Mason graduate. “When I think of the skills people need to move forward in our country, cultural competence is a really big one,” she says. “Mason has the richness of its student body and how diverse it is. And your new president is Spanish! Mason students are gaining cultural competence—sensitivity on how to address other cultures and experience with globalization. And that’s a really wonderful thing.”