Women Leaders in Gaming: Taking Risks, Inspiring Others
Four women, representing distinctively different areas of the gaming industry, shared their career and life stories in an American Gaming Association-sponsored webinar earlier this week in recognition of International Women’s Day. And while they all could lay rightful claim to huge professional success, there was a more fundamental commonality.
Each woman has shown herself to be a risk-taker.
The four included Elaine Hodgson, president and chief executive officer of gaming equipment developer Incredible Technologies; Stephanie A. Bryan, chairwoman and chief executive officer for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians; Melonie Johnson, president and chief operating officer of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, and Sara Gonso Tait, executive director of the Indiana Gaming Commission.
Each woman in her own area has been both a trailblazer and earned a leadership role in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. Johnson, the first African-American woman to head the market-leading casino in New Jersey, exemplified the spirit all four share in facing challenges.
Johnson, who has held executive positions with three large casino companies in six jurisdictions, recalled a conversation years ago that was a turning point.
"This was not done maliciously or with any ulterior motives,” Johnson said as she recalled a motivating professional moment, “but in my career in the past, I was once told that I had ‘peaked.’ And if there is one thing I don’t like is for someone to tell me what I can and cannot do. I put enough pressure on myself to achieve goals or in understanding my strengths and opportunities to improve.
”So, I was told I had ‘maxed out’ and my career was great and I was perfectly placed and I was an asset and I would be there forever. And I promise you, this was done without any ill intention.”
Still, Johnson was profoundly upset. Such an assessment implied she had no room for growth. “I hate that,” she said.
She left work, thought for a few days and put herself back on the job market. In less than a month, she had lined up another position, had turned in her resignation, and took a job as a chief financial officer with the promise that she’d become a general manager. That set her on the path to running her own casinos as a chief operating officer.
Before the Borgata, Johnson was also president and COO of another MGM Resorts International property, National Harbor in Maryland, along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C.
"You have to know when to try harder and when to walk away. I was not afraid to walk away,” Johnson said.
First Female Tribal Chair and CEO
In 2014, Bryan became the first woman elected to the position of tribal chair and CEO for the Poarch Creek Indians. Her ascendancy to leadership was sometimes met with male resistance and, for a while, she was the lone woman on a nine-member board.
The Poarch Creek Indians are Alabama’s only federally recognized tribe and they began their climb out of poverty with in-state Class 2 gaming (bingo and other limited gambling). In 2015, a vision for the tribe was planned.
Today, the Poarch Creek own full casinos in jurisdictions far from Alabama. The most notable is Wind Creek Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, which the tribe bought from Las Vegas Sands in 2019. Internationally, they have casinos in Aruba and Curacao. At the beginning of the 21st century, the tribe was mostly grant-funded and had 10 employees; now, it has a thriving business with 6,000 workers.
“If our ancestors could see what we’ve done in this community, a poverty-stricken rural community, they would be so proud of the tribe and how far we’ve come,” said Bryan, who grew up so poor she could see the dirt beneath her house’s floor boards.
Female leadership has also increased within the tribe, she said.
“We want to lay the groundwork to inspire our daughters, our granddaughters, to do great things,” she said. “To lead by greatness, to lead with passion. Break those barriers, create your own path. … If someone tells you that you can’t, show them that you can.”
Starting a Business & Family
A child of the 1960s and ‘70s, Hodgson described how she started as a biochemistry graduate from Purdue University who gravitated to computer programming working in the video game business in the 1980s. Employed in a job she enjoyed, she would have happily continued that way indefinitely but life had other plans as her employer’s business went bankrupt.
Hodgson and her then-husband then took a risk that is often financially fatal. Using savings and credit cards, they started their own business. From a basement start-up in 1985, Incredible Technologies has become a prominent player in the amusement games and casino games industries (Golden Tee and Crazy Money Double Deluxe are examples).
“There were times when I was concurrently doing programming to meet deadlines, selling our services to keep (the business) alive and starting a family … That’s something a lot of women do, then and now,” Hodgson said.
She has always assumed the CEO mantle regardless of whether the company was headquartered in a basement or is the substantial business it is today. In the beginning, being a CEO “was about survival and not giving up,” she said, and now it means surrounding herself with good people and supporting them to do the job well.
Rising Through the Ranks in Indiana
Tait, the Indiana gaming regulator, said she joined the gaming commission 9½ years ago after law school because she was attracted by the concept of public service.
She rose through the ranks by taking on challenges others occasionally tried to discourage her from tackling.
Eight months pregnant with twins when the general counsel position came up at the gaming commission, she voiced her ambition for the job.
“People said, ‘You’re a first-time mom, do you really want to do this?’ ” she said. “And my response was ‘Of course I do, I can do both,’ so it was just having that confidence.”
When the executive director’s job opened in 2015, she decided to try for that despite being just 31 and without gaming industry experience. Even her father was dubious.
She recalled: “A lot of people didn’t think I was ready, including my father. He said, ‘Sarah — executive director — that’s a really big job.’ But I felt I could do it and I felt, ‘I’m going to give it a try.’ ”
Tait currently oversees about 200 employees, including two police divisions, regulating both casinos and sports wagering.
She credited the other women on the panel for their work over the decades which, she said, made her path possible.
“I am here,” Tait said, “because of their sacrifices … It is because of their hard work and their trailblazing that a young woman like me can be in a leadership position in the gaming industry.”
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