The Iacocca Leadership Speaker Series honors auto industry icon Lee Iacocca’s legacy of leadership, tenacity, and social responsibility, and his commitment to supporting international education. Fueled by support from the Iacocca Family Foundation and hosted by the Iacocca Institute, it brings to Lehigh innovative leaders and thinkers who are making an impact in the world.
The inaugural Iacocca Leadership Speaker was Sylvia Acevedo, a trailblazing entrepreneur, business leader and engineer who started her career working in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and most recently served as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. A believer in the transformative power of education, Acevedo is passionate about enabling the next generation of leaders to develop the skills and mindset they need to succeed – and make a difference – in an increasingly digital world.
Acevedo joined Richard Verma ’90, former U.S. ambassador to India and Lehigh trustee, to share what she’s learned as a leader in industries as varied as science, government, big tech and education; how she’s working to increase access for women and those of diverse backgrounds; and why she thinks it’s important to cultivate a global outlook.
Leaders Making an Impact
About last year's speaker
Sylvia Acevedo is a nationally recognized and highly awarded trailblazer in a variety of industries and fields, starting with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories as a rocket scientist, a tech executive in software, hardware, storage and networking, a federal governmental leader and CEO of one of the most trusted brands in the world.
Acevedo most recently served as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA where she led the largest program rollout in the 100 plus year history of the organization with over 146 new badges and programs in STEM, Outdoors, Entrepreneurship and Civics. Millions of girls in rural, urban and suburban communities across America earned valuable skills in cybersecurity, automotive engineering, entrepreneurship, coding, robotics, and leadership. In her last full year as CEO in 2019, across America girls got their start in technology by earning over 1 million STEM badges, 180,000 of them in Cybersecurity.
Acevedo started her career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where she worked on two missions. She was a member of both the mission of Voyager 2’s Flyby of the planet Jupiter and the initial program phase of the Solar Polar/Solar Probe Mission, renamed, Parker Solar Probe Mission which is now circling the sun.
A trailblazer in the field of technology, Acevedo earned promotions to the executive ranks for her ability to lead organizations to higher levels of performance. She made her mark in the USA and global markets positions at industry giants such as Apple, Dell, Autodesk and IBM. As an entrepreneur, she was a co-founder of REBA Technologies, a tech software company that was acquired.
An avowed believer in the power of education to transform and improve lives and communities, Acevedo worked to close educational disparities starting in Austin, Texas. Acevedo’s grassroots educational campaigns scaled across the nation, distributing over a quarter of a million books, providing more than 11,000 eyeglasses, 25,000 dental kits, 20,000 sports balls, and reaching millions of parents of school aged children with the resources that they needed to support their children’s educational journey. The White House took notice and in 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Acevedo to be a White House Education Commissioner where she chaired the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics in Early Childhood. She is credited as the key driver of the Administration’s Early Childhood Dual Language Education Policy. In 2010, the Government of Mexico awarded Acevedo, the Ohtli Award, their highest honor for a non Mexican citizen, for her work in improving parental engagement in education in the USA.
To inspire the rising generation of students to live a life of their potential, Acevedo authored, Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist, a middle school memoir that details Acevedo’s personal journey from the dirt streets of Las Cruces, New Mexico, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and to the top executive tiers of Apple, Dell, IBM as well as serving in the White House and as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA.
Acevedo serves on the Board of Directors for Qualcomm and Credo Technology. Acevedo has served on numerous non-profit boards and as the Chair of the Austin Community Foundation. She was a founding member of the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas and Extraordinary Women on Boards in New York City. She has received many distinctions for her leadership, including in 2019 the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineering awarding her the Captain of Industry Leadership Award, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation conferring her with the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award and being named the “Cybersecurity Person of the Year”, by Cybersecurity Ventures. Forbes named her as one of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech and In Style’s listed Acevedo as “Number 7 on the Badass 50: Women Who are Changing the World.”
Acevedo holds a bachelor's degree with Honors in Industrial Engineering from New Mexico State University. In 2010 the New Mexico State University College of Engineering named her as one of their most Distinguished Alumna. Acevedo earned her graduate degree in Engineering at Stanford University, one of the first Hispanics, male or female, to have done so. In 2020, Acevedo was conferred an Honorary Doctorate from Washington College for her STEM national leadership. In May 2022, Duke University conferred Acevedo with an Honorary Doctorate of Science.
Richard Verma ’90 will interview Acevedo. Verma is the Chief Legal Officer and Head of Global Public Policy for Mastercard. In this role, he oversees the company's law and policy functions in the United States and around the world. Rich brings over 25 years of international experience across senior levels of business, law, diplomacy and the military. He is a member of the company's Management Committee.
Verma previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to India, where he led one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions and championed historic progress in bilateral cooperation on defense, trade, and clean energy. He is a former Assistant Secretary of State and he also worked on Capitol Hill as the National Security Advisor to the Senate Majority Leader. He currently serves as a member of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board.
Verma practiced law for many years at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington D.C., and is the former Vice Chairman of The Asia Group, a leading international consulting firm. In addition, Rich is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and the recipient of a number of military awards and civilian decorations, including the Meritorious Service Medal and the State Department's Distinguished Service Award.
Verma is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a trustee of Lehigh University. He serves on a number of boards and commissions, including the T. Rowe Price corporate board, the Ford Foundation board of trustees and the National Endowment for Democracy board of directors. He holds multiple degrees, including his doctorate (Ph.D.) from Georgetown University and his law degree (J.D.) from American University.
About Lee Iacocca
Lee Iacocca ’45 (1924-2019) was a dedicated philanthropist, visionary automaker and influential business leader who was considered one of the greatest CEOs of all time. Through his leadership of Ford, where he was the driving force behind the iconic Mustang in the mid-1960s, and his well-publicized turnaround of the Chrysler Corporation in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was broadly recognized as a symbol of American ingenuity and resilience. He retired in 1992.
“For a vast swath of the American public, Mr. Iacocca was the face, the voice and the symbol of the car business in Detroit at its most resourceful and industrious,” according to the Washington Post obituary published after his death in 2019.
A Legacy of Leadership
Known as a bold leader and a straight talker, Iacocca was a sought-after public speaker. Over his career, he made more than 500 speeches about management. His best-selling 1984 book, Iacocca: An Autobiography, written with William Novak, became essential reading for students of business. And in 2007, at the age of 82, he laid out his case for a new era of American leadership in Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, written with Catherine Whitney. There, he outlined his “Nine Cs of Leadership”: curiosity, creativity, communication, character, courage, conviction, charisma, confidence and common sense.
Iacocca also believed strongly in giving back. In the 1980s, in honor of his immigrant parents, he led the fundraising campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. After the death of his wife, Mary, from diabetes in 1983, he formed the Iacocca Family Foundation to fund research into a cure for the disease. And he remained committed to Lehigh, giving back over the decades to help the university expand its physical campus and its global reach. He led the fundraising campaign to acquire the Mountaintop Campus from Bethlehem Steel while simultaneously starting the Iacocca Institute in 1988, originally dedicated to increasing the global competitiveness of American organizations before evolving to focus on challenging the next generation of young global leaders.
In founding the institute named in his honor, Iacocca said his intent was to develop inspired leaders who “are fueled with curiosity, motivated to tackle the toughest problems and smart enough to meet inevitable world changes responsibly.” The experiences offered through the Institute, he said, were intended to “open new doorways and to create a focus on future pathways. With the right skills and education, we can lead the way.”
And Commitment to Global Education
In 1997, the Institute launched its flagship program: the Iacocca Global Village, an immersive intercultural learning experience focused on entrepreneurship and leadership skills. The Global Village brings together university students and professionals from around the world to learn how to work across cultures and lead in a global community. Today, the Global Village alumni network includes more than 2,470 successful leaders from 141 countries, and the Iacocca Institute has built on that success to develop additional innovative programs that combine immersion in an extremely diverse living community with learning experiences in entrepreneurship, leadership and more.
In 2011, Iacocca returned to Lehigh at the age of 86 to deliver a challenge to Lehigh alumni, parents and friends. He would match, up to $5 million, any gifts in support of international internships – real-world global work-abroad opportunities to enrich the student experience. The challenge was met in 2015. That year, Iacocca invited the student interns to send him questions, which he personally answered by email. One student asked if he thought her international experience with an NGO would translate into a successful future career in mainstream business.
“The world is growing smaller all the time,” Iacocca told her, “so we need to know our neighbors, how they live, how they think and what they aspire to be. There are so many important skills that you will develop through this internship including problem-solving and cultural competency. You will learn how to understand, communicate, and successfully work with people across cultures. These are all important skills that will transfer to your future business career.”
Iacocca served as an honorary trustee of the university and was an honorary co-chair of GO: The Campaign for Lehigh. He received the Lehigh Alumni Award, the highest honor bestowed on an alumnus, and the distinguished Alumni Award from Lehigh’s department of industrial and systems engineering in 2010. He died in 2019.
In his memory, the Iacocca Family Foundation has made a $5 million gift to endow the Iacocca Institute and support global initiatives. The Lee A. Iacocca Institute Endowment Fund will be established as a matching gift of $4 million. An additional $1 million match will support Lehigh’s overall global initiatives. Ultimately, when the match is fully realized, the Iacocca Institute will benefit from philanthropic investments totaling $8 million, while the university’s global initiatives will receive $2 million.
In announcing the gift, Iacocca’s daughter and Lehigh trustee Lia Iacocca Assad said her father was proud of his lifetime association with Lehigh, both as a student and a philanthropist. “He was a visionary in understanding that global experiences impact individuals' lives, as well as the business world.”