By Bob Skolnik
Riverside resident Karen Layng is now the top Girl Scout in the country. Last month, Layng was selected as the national president of the Girl Scouts of the USA's board of directors. She will serve in the unpaid position for three years.
While she was the only candidate for the position, Layng had served on the Girl Scout national board for the past three years and was selected by national delegates.
Layng told the Landmark that that she was "honored and excited" to be chosen as national president. She said that being a Girl Scout was a life-changing experience for her as a girl growing up in Lombard.
"Without Girl Scouts I have no idea where I would have ended up or what I would have done," Layng said. "You may not think it now, but I was a very shy girl and lacked self-confidence. My troop leader was my first female mentor, encouraging me to pursue my dreams even when my parents did not."
Layng, 58, grew up to become became a high-powered lawyer specializing in construction law. She worked at the large Chicago law firm VedderPrice for nearly 24 years, most of that time as a partner.
She left VedderPrice in 2013 to become a vice-president, general counsel and ultimately chief strategic officer for Scheck Industries for four years. Now she runs her own consulting firm called MAIT. She also served for a time as the chairwoman of the Riverside Plan Commission.
But Layng has always made time for Girl Scouts. She co-led Girl Scout Troop 4590 for 13 years with Cathy Louthen and Deb Gardiner.
"She's an incredible person," Louthen said. "Very much an advocate for girls growing up into leaders, and she shows by example. Even though she was a high-powered lawyer, still is to this day, she always thinks of others and is very caring and considerate to every girl."
Layng said her experiences as a Girl Scout troop leader and a Girl Scout were "life affirming."
Because Layng never does anything halfway, she wasn't content to just be a troop leader. She also got involved in Girl Scout governance and became the chairwoman of the board of the Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana Council.
There she worked on solving pension problems that were creating serious financial issues for the council.
Layng is taking over the lead public role as the head of the Girl Scouts of the USA at a challenging time for Girl Scouts. Membership has fallen to about 1.7 million girls from 2.3 million girls just 10 years ago, a decline of more than 25 percent. And now girls can join Boy Scouts which some thought posed an existential threat to Girl Scouts.
But Layng downplayed the threat from Boy Scouts.
"Not much of a threat, they've actually gotten very few members," said Layng when asked about the threat of Boy Scouts attracting girls. "The world needs Girl Scouts more than ever."
Layng is a big believer, as you might expect, of single gender scouting.
"All the research shows that girls benefit and thrive in single-gender organizations," Layng said. "There is absolutely no evidence to show that you're better off having co-ed scouting, none."
Layng said that the growth of travel sports and the other demands on girls' lives today is behind the decline in the numbers of girls who are joining Girl Scouts.
"There's always competition," Layng said. "There's other girl affinity groups. The most competition that we have, and the difficulty, is travel sports."
Scouting during a pandemic brings additional challenges.
"It's even more challenging when we have virtual campsites and virtual cookie sales and the like," Layng said.
Layng has fond memories of her time as a Girl Scout in Lombard, saying that she loved camping, sports, and outdoor activities.
"I loved campfires," Layng recalled. "I loved tie-dyed shirts and I loved S'mores."
But looking back, she is even more thankful for the self-confidence that grew in her as she did more and more things as a Girl Scout, and she is determined to bring that same inner sense of belief in oneself and being part of a supportive community to girls around the country.