Smart Cookies

(from left) Robyn Shimoda, Tiare Rhoden, Qellsy Villanueva, Gail Hannemann and Kassidy Villanueva. Nathalie Walker photos

Girl Scouts of Hawai’i is on the move, led by CEO Gail Hannemann, who is one smart cookie

Girl Scouts of Hawai’i CEO Gail Mukaihata Hannemann has a recipe for success that cannot fail. Ingredients call for equal parts of courage, confidence and character. Seasoned with innovation and individuality, the mix should rise to the top.

Bit too metaphorical for you? Well, stay with us because this story has a tasty moral that’s palatable for all. You don’t have to be a Girl Scout to understand it. And we promise, it’s not just another half-baked idea.

When most of us think about Girl Scouts, we think about those yummy cookies you buy once a year. A spirited, motivated youngster in a green vest adorned with merit badges approaches you at a store-front stand and asks if you’ll support her fundraising drive.

It’s hard to resist. You recall your own upbringing and impressionable years as a child, and compassion gets the best of you. The transaction results in, not just one, but several boxes of Girl Scout cookies in your shopping cart.

“It’s for a good cause,” you say as you take a bite of Thin Mints, then reach in the package for those delicious Samoas.

If it satisfies your taste buds, it should also touch your civic consciousness. You are supporting the Girl Scout mission of developing entrepreneurial and leadership qualities in young women.

Today’s cookie hawkers are tomorrow’s bosses.

To underscore that mission, Girl Scouts observes “Priceless” Day Saturday, May 7, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Ala Moana Hotel. It marks another year of phenomenal cookie sales and the grand opening of new headquarters.

Guests include Melinda Carroll presenting a new song, Ignite, and Maya Soetoro-Ng (whose daughter is a Daisy scout) reading her new children’s book, Ladder to the Moon. Internationally renowned dance studio Dance Exchange will enliven a leadership workshop.

“Girl Scouts of Hawaii is on the move in more ways than one,” says Hannemann. “Not only are we moving ahead with innovative leadership development programming for girls across the state, but we are literally moving our offices this month. Last October, we agreed to sell our beloved Girl Scout hale (420 Wyllie St. in Nuuanu) to our neighbor, the Hawaii Baptist Academy. The decision was made because HBA has the in-house capacity to better care for the historically registered home and can now welcome more students to its campus.”

The move to Ala Moana Hotel includes a retail shop in the lobby and business office on the second floor near the parking lot bridge that connects the shopping center and hotel.

“With all the incredible changes going on in the Girl Scout movement, the Girls Scouts of Hawai’i wants to be situated where local families regularly frequent,” Hannemann says. “An accessible location allows us to better serve the girls and volunteers who are actively involved in Girl Scouting as well as broaden our reach so we can further our mission.”

On Saturday, the organ-ization will present “Priceless” awards to Girl Scouts who sold 700-plus boxes of cookies. These top performers join an elite rank of 78 others who have achieved the same level. There are 34 scouts in the Hall of Fame who sold 1,000-plus boxes, of which 11 exceeded 2,000 boxes.

(Sales recruiters, are you taking note of these achievers?)

Each year, Islanders gobble up a quarter-million boxes of cookies, according to Reyna Kaneko, Girl Scouts director of product and retail sales. Kaneko orchestrates the statewide cookie campaign and distribution.

It is a colossal undertaking by parents and volunteers joining forces with their daughters to unpack more than 23,000 cases of cookies baked in Kentucky and shipped to Honolulu.

But it’s not just a matter of making dough.

The $700 million Girl Scout cookie program is the largest girl-led business in the country.

“It is an educational tool and economic literacy program,” Kaneko says. “Through the cookie program, girls learn the importance of setting goals, developing individual and team strategy, collaborative decision making, earning money through hard work, sales techniques, business etiquette and budgeting.”

Gail Mukaihata Hannemann and Caroline Hayashi (chief operating officer) discuss the Girl Scouts’ concept of transformational leadership

Today’s Girl Scout is being groomed to be a “smart cookie” for the new world order.

This strategic focus comes from five years of retrenching and reinventing the century-old tradition of Girl Scouting. As Girl Scouts of America embarks on its 100th anniversary next year, it is revealing itself as a new force in the global community.

“How so?” you ask, biting into a Do-si-dos oatmeal-peanut butter cookie.

It is a tough crumb to swallow when an organization takes an honest look at itself in the face of possible extinction.

Over the years, America’s largest girls club has maintained its membership well enough, reaching more than 10 percent of girls ages 5 to 17. But the century-old organization was rattled when girls said adults weren’t paying attention to many issues they face in daily life.

These include over-scheduling, bullying (especially over the Internet and via cell phone text-messaging), “cutting” (self-mutilation) and teen pregnancy. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of girls aren’t raising their hands in class because they’re afraid of being labeled smart – and being bullied for that.

After more than two years of research and input from tens of thousands of scouts and non-scouts, volunteers and staff, Girl Scouts of the USA undertook its first, wide-ranging overhaul.

Today it is a mean, lean, nimble machine advocating for programs that prepare young girls for responsible roles in life. Character-building is not a curriculum per se in many classrooms, so organizations such as the Girl Scouts are happy to fill that niche.

To motivate participants it has modified everything from its uniforms to the ways one can participate in its programs. One can be a member of a troop – preferred by younger girls – or participate “episodically” in a series, event, camp, travel pathway or virtual program.

Caroline “Carrie” Hayashi, Girl Scouts of Hawai’i chief operating officer, refers to this as “transformational leadership” that implores young women to “discover, connect and take action” as empowering strategies.

Armed with Girl Scouts’ new program tools, publications and focused curricula, troop leaders are able to be effective counselors and facilitators. At Nanakuli Intermediate, for instance, sessions on self-discovery are facilitated by slam poet Kealoha, who ignites a new approach to introspection and candor.

One girl writes: “I am not what they think I am. I am smart. I am sometimes funny. I am creative. I am not ugly. I am not hardcore. I am not a beach babe. I am not a streeter.”

The personal growth and self-esteem building process begins from there. Without an organization like Girl Scouts to guide the process, the situation could lapse into despair.

This is not a whim, Hannemann and her staff assert. The Girl Scout Research Institute today is a significant national resource on girls’ issues and a pre-eminent authority on youth leadership development.

Its research suggests that the model of one individual leader is moving to a model of shared leadership. Girls no longer identify with the command-and-control definition of leadership prevalent in our culture today.

(Hear that, bosses?) Clearly, the national and local organization has “changed it up.” It’s definitely not your grandmother’s Girl Scouts anymore, or even your older cousin’s. And although cookie sales are still at the heart of its revenue-generating engine (about 40 percent in Hawaii), the resources are being allocated to more accountable and transparent measures of leadership development.

So there you have a big picture. Think about the contribution you make in helping the Girl Scouts reinvent itself and sustain its powerful influence on our community’s young people.

Those boxes of cookies nourish not only your snack cravings, but young minds that will manage the public and private enterprises of tomorrow.

As for Hannemann and why she shunned the focus on herself for this article – even challenging our request for a front cover photo – we now realize it was not false modesty or celebrity stigma. After all, she is an accomplished woman who’s been a U.S. congressional aide, public policy advocate, the City & County of Honolulu’s first lady – married to Mufi somebody – and patron of Hawaii’s Alliance of Arts Education.

Hannemann is a model of the Girl Scouts’ redefined leader. You can’t sell it if you don’t live it and personify it.

Smart cookie, eh?