Girl Scout cookies at 100: How financial literacy is built with Thin Mints

The first cookies made by Girl Scouts were sold 100 years ago. In the decades since, girls across the country have learned valuable business skills from the cookie program that they can carry with them into adulthood.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
From left, Brogan Madden, 12, Christine MacLeod, 12, and Aisling Madden, 13, of Eastern Massachusetts Girl Scout Troop 71911, scan a credit card on ROAMpay mobile card reader while selling cookies at the Harvard Square subway stop on January 4, 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It’s been 100 years since a girl scout troop in Muskogee, Okla., took over a local high school cafeteria as part of a one-time service project. Since then, millions of young girls have sold billions of cookies while developing entrepreneurial skills as the idea of a cookie-based service project has evolved into a flagship program for the Girl Scouts.

The Girl Scouts’ signature Thin Mints and Samoas have developed a cult following among American cookie lovers who have been known to stock up for the year. But each cookie sale represents much more than a cookie purchase, says Stewart Goodbody, a Girl Scouts spokeswoman.

"When you buy cookies from a Girl Scout, you are doing so much more than scoring a box of treats – you are investing in her future, and the future leadership of our country," Ms. Goodbody tells The Christian Science Monitor. "A cornerstone of the Girl Scout experience, the Girl Scout Cookie Program is the largest, most successful girl-run business in the world."

The Girl Scout cookie program functions as a fundraising tool for individual troops and their local Girl Scout council to bankroll campouts and other activities for the scouts. However, it is the development of financial literacy that is these girls true reward, Lin Zheng, clinical associate professor of accounting at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business says.

"I think it is important for young people, especially women, to learn about financial independence, hard work and rewards," Dr. Zheng tells The Christian Science Monitor via email. "Financial planning is a life skill that young people need to develop and master."

The stated goal of the Girl Scouts sales effort is to develop five skills: goal setting, money management, people skills, decision making, and business ethics. 

The value of teaching girls financial literacy and independence was not necessarily a widely accepted goal when the Muskogee troop started selling cookies in 1917. It would be another three years before Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, giving women the right to vote.

At that time, women's options were extremely limited in the United States; most could not work and had very little say in how their lives were governed in political forums as well as their personal lives. With the right to vote came the possibility of representation and independence for the first time, but business experience and other skills traditionally associated with men would remain out of reach for most women for decades to come.

In 1933, the first boxes of cookies officially identified as "Girl Scout Cookies" were sold in Philadelphia, and the program became increasingly popular for troops around the country. In addition to providing funds for troop activities, the girls that sold them would develop more business acumen and better financial understanding than many adult women of the time.

Even today, 57 percent of former girl scouts who are involved in business say that the cookie program was key to developing business skills for use in their field, according to the official Girl Scouts website.

Such skills are still particularly scarce in the US; A 2016 study by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation found that 63 percent of Americans were financially illiterate.

The Girl Scout Cookie program has developed considerably since 1917, changing with the times. In recent years, cookie sales have gone online, keeping the scouts up-to-date with all sorts of business technology, as the Monitor reported last year:

While scouts can still knock on doors and sell cookies outside of grocery stores, they can also set up their own websites and send e-mail blasts to their contacts, who can then place their online orders via Visa Checkout. This year, the Girl Scouts will have access to analytics tools, as well as games to bolster tech skills and teach business principles, Fortune reports.

There are ample opportunities for the next generation of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. A report by the US Department of Commerce in 2013 found that only 24 percent of jobs in STEM disciplines are held by women.

For consumers, it can be easy to see the cookies as just another tasty tradition. But for many young women, it's far more than that.

Ellen Weber, executive director of the Fox School of Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia, tells the Monitor in an email that the program "gives girls an opportunity to discuss budgets and goals and marketing tactics, and provide opportunities for leadership."

A former girl scout and a mother of girl scouts, she says that the girls in the program set goals for themselves and for the troop, improve their social skills by interacting with customers, and learn about strategic planning from selling in competition with other troops. There are individual incentives for selling cookies such as cash and prizes, but the collective benefits for the troop from selling cookies require teamwork, just like businesses in the "real world."

The result of the hard work is impressive: $800 million in cookie sales during an average season. But for the scouts themselves, the entrepreneurial spirit fostered by the program and business skills can be even more valuable in the long run.

"The project is unique for every troop and every girl," says Indian’a University’s Zheng. "They face uncertainties in cookie sales and they work hard to solve problems. Expecting life's challenges and using the courage and skills to find the best solution has a sustaining effect on girls' adult lives."

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