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5 Women Who Shine

Shinning a spotlight on the crucial role women play in the gaming industry

5 Women Who Shine

For the past five years, GGB has shined the spotlight on the crucial roles women play in the gaming industry. For too many years, women have been limited to service positions or creative exercises, but today, the diverse C-suite is getting more and more occupied by amazing women. This month, we bring you five women who have made a difference in their companies, the industry overall, and their communities. It’s our pleasure to introduce these accomplished ladies, and we’re expecting there are more women making more inroads to the upper echelon of management.

Everybody Wins

Tamara Hansen • Director of Sales, NRT

In work as in life, Tamara Hansen is proof of the motto, “Leap, and the net will appear.”

The California native once planned a career in speech and language therapy. But as different roads unfolded, she readily changed course, jumping first into educational leadership training, then meeting sales at MGM Resorts, then sales consulting for fintech and IT firm NRT. With tenacity and optimism, she has succeeded despite unforeseen obstacles—like Covid-19.

Throughout 2020, even as the conventions and meetings sector went dark, she continued to book business for MGM in Las Vegas, and stayed in the black throughout the crisis.

“It was a master act of shuffling the pieces and re-engaging with customers,” she recalls. “I had that client trust built up, so it was a matter of getting things back on the books rather than canceling. It’s a testament to MGM that it continually came back to the table to make sure our customers were taken care of.”

Then, intrigued by fintech innovations that accelerated in the post-Covid age, Hansen joined NRT as a sales director. Admittedly, she struggled to learn the intricacies of cashless. She was also daunted by the scope of her territory, which includes eight states and parts of Nevada.

“Ignorance is bliss, and had I understood what I was saying yes to, I might not have had the gumption to sign up,” she says. “But NRT took a shot on me and said, ‘This is a person with the right stuff. If we teach her about this space and this industry, we believe she’ll have an impact and be successful.’ So I committed myself every day to learning and contributing.”

In her case, the right stuff meant dogged persistence, on-the-job training and lots of self-learning (yes, that includes podcasts and YouTube videos).

“I molded myself into a person with the capacity to know, understand and have these technical conversations, so I could go to any person of any background in any position and understand their needs and the limits of their knowledge, then help it all make sense,” she says. “I think that’s where my strength lies—that duality. I understand the deeply technical, because for more than a year and a half I alchemized myself to know this business, until I got really passionate about it.”

Hansen sees sales as a long game that doesn’t begin or end with a signed contract.

“Anyone in sales with that mentality is in the wrong field,” she says. “My sole responsibility is to understand my technology stack and the services I can provide to help an operator or human being. I ask about their environment and their pain points, then map out a custom solution that makes it lighter on them and their team. Do they want to step into and dabble with the digital transformation that’s happening? Do they want to tap into a small piece of cashless rather than making the total transformation? I see myself as a bridge of information,” guiding clients to the optimal solution.

An unabashed optimist, Hansen’s LinkedIn page includes cheerleading videos (“Motivational Mondays,” “Feel-Good Fridays”), plus exhortations to “approach life’s day-to-day with a focus on how we can make it better for those around us.” With that as the jumping-off point, she believes, everybody wins. —by Marjorie Preston

Creative Compliance

Tonya Henderson • Vice President, Compliance, Resorts World Las Vegas

A compliance officer holds a special place in the operation of an organization. The person in this position sees to it that the policies and regulations of both the business and government at all levels are followed. That covers a lot of ground, and at Resorts World Las Vegas, that job belongs to Tonya Henderson, vice president of compliance. Without an experienced compliance officer, the company could face hefty fines, lawsuits, and damage to its reputation.

Henderson has been head of compliance with Resorts World for two years. But she’s been involved with compliance for more than 10 years.

“To excel in the compliance field, you need to be a zealous advocate, maintain flexibility and have the courage to do the right thing even when it’s difficult,” she says. “You need to understand the operational, financial and industry challenges on a day-to-day basis.”

Henderson praises her mentors for challenging her to succeed.

“My mentors pushed me to do more and think outside the box. They recognized that I was ready to take the next steps before I did. I was humbled by the faith placed in me, and that motivated me to work even harder,” she says.

Former IGT compliance exec Michelle Chatigny taught Henderson that she has to be willing to make difficult decisions even when they are hard or unpopular, or when she receives pushback from other executives.

“She taught me the importance of thinking and planning ahead, and that in some circles, women will have a more difficult experience, and not to let that stop me,” she says. “Michelle exemplified excellence and poise in every situation.”

She “walked the talk” and educated Henderson on the value of a great pair of heels.

“(Former Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman) A.G. Burnett taught me that no matter what side of gaming you are on, the ultimate goals and expectations are the same. Integrity, relationship building, doing the right thing because it is the right thing, safeguarding the customer, company and state. He taught me that a quick fix is not worth hurting your reputation because you only get one.”

Henderson’s parents instilled at an early age that if there are obstacles in your way, then find a way to get around them.

“Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you stop; it means you persevere,” she says. “My parents taught me that all people, no matter the color, gender or job, have something of value to offer. I have used those skills and my education to not only break the glass ceiling, but to lift others as I climb. It is not an easy task, but it is necessary and worthwhile.”

Henderson is quick to acknowledge positive contributions from each team member for meeting goals.

“I empower the team to make mistakes,” she explains. “It is only by trying new things, being creative and sometimes failing, that compliance will keep up with the ever-changing gaming environment.”

When it comes to upper-echelon executive offices, too many gaming companies do not represent the community or the available talent. “Throughout my career, I maintain my focus and commitment to successfully achieving the goal. I find that success at meeting the goals is the answer to addressing bias in the workplace.” —by Bill Sokolic

Sustained Success

Wendy Montgomery • Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Sustainability, IGT

As a corporate buzzword, “sustainability” is sometimes more honored in the breach than the observance. But taken seriously and implemented thoughtfully, it may be the most important business of business today.

At IGT, sustainability means a fair shake for its 10,000-plus employees around the world. In keeping with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, it commits to no less than ending hunger and managing climate change. In short, this is a job for Superman—or, in this case, Superwoman, in the person of Wendy Montgomery.

IGT’s senior VP of marketing, communications and sustainability, formerly with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., calls it a “privilege” to advance performance in these crucial areas.

Sustainability is nothing new at IGT, which has been formally reporting on its efforts since 2008.

“It primarily started because of our roots in Italy as well in Europe, where corporate social responsibility, and especially environmental issues, were very topical,” says Montgomery. “It’s part of the legacy of the organization.”

IGT consistently gets high marks in the space. In June, it earned a Gold award from ratings agency EcoVadis, putting it in the top 5 percent of global companies in the categories of environment, labor and human rights, ethics and sustainability. In July, it was recognized by the All-In Diversity Project as the top-ranking gaming supplier when it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion.

Even so, the company doesn’t rest on its laurels.

“Such recognition helps us identify the gaps and see what other companies are doing, not just in our industry but in entertainment and the technology sectors,” says Montgomery. “This is where we can look at ourselves against the competition and see where we can improve.”

The company’s sustainability efforts include rank-and-file programs like the Day Off for Volunteerism, Dollars for Doers, and a Matching Gifts plan that tops up charitable contributions made by IGT employees. The company’s flagship After School Advantage program, established in 1999, provides more than 300 digital learning centers to help at-risk children learn vital competitive skills. The program supports inclusive and equitable education with an eye to future employment, and emphasizes science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM).

These practices don’t just feel good, they make business sense over the long haul, Montgomery adds. “It goes back to the three Ps”—people, process and product—which in turn support profitability. “And it makes people feel good about where they work,” says Montgomery, “which is critically important for attracting talent.”

IGT doesn’t stand alone in these efforts, but has a supplier code of conduct to ensure vendors comply with the same standards. “Managing the value chain is critically important,” says Montgomery. “Just as our customers expect compliance from us, we expect it from our suppliers, too.”

She acknowledges that Covid-19 “threw a wrench” into monitoring and enforcement.

“We weren’t able to complete many on-site checkups because of Covid restrictions, but as with all such initiatives, you learn to walk before you run, and we’re maturing in this area,” she says. “We established the plan, we communicated it and translated in various languages, and we’re developing a more robust follow-up to get back on track.”

Call it a sort of a bully pulpit, in the best sense.

“The good thing is, the more companies that are forced into or led into this area, the more we’re all going to benefit.”

For those who would follow in her footsteps, Montgomery espouses a can-do attitude that doesn’t recognize obstacles.

“You have to put yourself out there, taking advantage of opportunities that come your way and taking risks.” The reward, she says, is “working with great people,” and not incidentally, helping to save the world. —by Marjorie Preston

The Millennial Moment

Courtney Garland • Director of Operations, Emerald Island and Rainbow Club Casinos

For Courtney Garland, the casino business seemed like a foregone conclusion. She was born and raised in Las Vegas. Went to college in Las Vegas. Then there’s mom and dad.

“I developed a passion for the trade through my parents,” she says, “who both dedicated their careers to developing the gaming and hospitality industry.”

Credit Disneyland, too.

“Disneyland motivated me creatively with how to better enhance the guest experience in my own entertainment field,” Garland says.

When it comes down to it, the fast-paced, high-volume nature of this business as well as the ability to connect and cultivate relationships with patrons played a role.

Garland rose in the casino corporate world, and in 2021 Emerald Island and Rainbow Club Casinos in Henderson, Nevada named her director of operations.

Like other members of the millennial generation, Garland rose quickly through the ranks. Before her current position, she served as assistant general manager and prior to that, executive casino host.

“Managers are being elevated to upper management because we speak up and encourage others to share new ideas through various platforms,” she explains. “My generation is dedicated to promoting cultures of inclusion and innovation, which is instrumental in the success of the casino industry.”

Millennials also are committed to personal development through constant self-assessments.

As director of operations, Garland oversees guest services and gaming compliance, aids player and community outreach, develops new policies, executes promotions, and hosts special events, to name a handful of duties.

She also managed several large-scale projects, including a new player tracking system, multiple property expansions, the restructuring of the player rewards program, and virtual gaming promotions.

“I have been allowed to wear many hats at work, which has granted me the opportunity to use my creativity and resourcefulness when taking on new responsibilities outside my area of expertise,” Garland says.

She owes much to mentors, like the “Wolf of Water Street” Tim Brooks, co-owner and GM of the Emerald Island and Rainbow Club Casinos. “Tim inspires me by being a visionary for the historic Water Street District and an advocate for our downtown Henderson community. The best advice Tim has given me is ‘to keep moving the needle forward.’”

Jay Ship, CEO of Xs & Os of Success, reminds Garland “to be a better version of myself than I was yesterday and know the difference between reacting and responding.”

Garland says she’s fortunate to work with a diverse team with unique perspectives that help her make decisions.

“I aim to facilitate strong teamwork by providing employees autonomy and coaching them through challenges,” she says.

Garland checks with employees to assess what works and what could use improvement. “The team can always count on me to research how to resolve any issue. It is important to me to be both available and approachable.”

Put another way, inclusion and knowledge make for more ownership of their work.

“The best feeling is watching team members become excited about their part of the operation and seeing them succeed by reaching their own personal goals.”

Despite all the positivity flowing from Garland, there were times she experienced a lack of confidence and self-doubt since women occupy such a small percentage of leadership roles in the gaming industry. “I overcame these feelings by reminding myself I am qualified, and focus on what I have to offer the team and company.”

Yes, she was treated unfairly because of her gender, overlooked for an opportunity or excluded from negotiation. “Because I am a woman. I chose to find my voice and bring awareness in these situations by advocating for myself and proving I can contribute to the conversation in a beneficial way.” —by Bill Sokolic

Unstoppable

Lana Rivera • Vice President and General Manager, Graton Resort

For Lana Rivera, a career in gaming was in the cards.

Rivera grew up on card games—not just “Go Fish” and “Old Maid,” but gin rummy and spades. Playing cards was a safe, no-cost pastime for Rivera’s family, who lived in a “rough neighborhood” in Joliet, Illinois. By age 7, young Lana could shuffle like a dealer.

That skill came in handy in the early 1990s, when a Harrah’s casino opened on the Des Plaines River. Twenty-one-year-old Rivera applied to be a riverboat dealer, and underwent a grueling audition process.

“I want to say we trained for three months, 20 hours a week,” she recalls. “I was going crazy, but by the time it was over, I could deal in my sleep. And that’s exactly what they wanted.” Her first shift was exhilarating; four hours in, a high roller had gambled and lost $300,000.

Looking to rise through the ranks, Rivera saw few women in mid-level management and fewer still in leadership roles. Eventually, working for the Cherokee Nation Entertainment’s (CNE) Hard Rock in Tulsa, she confronted then-general manager Gary Weddell. “I was honest with him: ‘Throughout my career, this has been a man’s world. I’m curious to know what you think about women in gaming.’”

Taken aback by the question, Weddell went on to become one of Rivera’s earliest champions, along with Mark Fulton, CNE’s chief executive officer.

“Between those men, I had the best of both worlds—real training in leadership, management, marketing, and caring about people. I worked 70 hours a week to make things happen, but I loved it.” By 2005, she was CNE’s table games manager.

With the positives came an equal measure of sacrifice.

“Early in my career I was a single mother of four, with no immediate family nearby. But given the opportunity for growth, I jumped on it. I spent hours learning the business, understanding the competition, perfecting my departments, building relationships with the team and guests. All that comes at a cost.”

Rivera missed birthdays, holidays and school events. One Thanksgiving, called to deal with a work emergency, she had to leave in the middle of cooking dinner. “I gave it my all at every level of advancement. I had to take care of my children.”

Rung by rung, she continued her climb, to senior table games manager at the Hard Rock, then director of gaming operations, then director of casino operations and general manager. In Tulsa, Rivera led a workforce of more than 1,600 employees, increased market share, exceeded revenue targets and personally rebuilt the senior management team. She also led a full remodel of the casino floor and an exterior upgrade, on time and on budget. She is also known as the inventor of two patent-protected casino products: a card-based variation of craps and a lighted phone charger (one of the first such devices introduced on a gaming floor).

An enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Tribe, Rivera reached a career pinnacle in 2019, when she was named vice president and general manager at Graton Casino in Sonoma County, California. Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, hailed the appointment, saying, “We’re proud and honored to have hired such an accomplished and qualified general manager as Lana. We’re also proud to have an American Indian woman at the helm of our business.”

Then came Covid-19.

“Business was strong when I walked in in November, but four months later I realized, ‘We’re going to have to shut this casino down.’” Graton was the first casino in Northern California to close its doors; it did not reopen for 92 days.

“The hardest part was laying off team members who were within their first 90 days,” says Rivera. “I’ve never had to lay off a team member, and that was really hard for me.”

But business has returned, as reflected by plans for a resort expansion that include a larger gaming floor, a 3,500-seat theater, a new rooftop restaurant and a second hotel tower.

Rivera says leaders must have these key traits:

  • Empathy. “Genuinely caring about your team and showing it, and recognizing them at all levels.”
  • Loyalty. “Remember everyone that you support and who supports you. It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t have time.’ But you have to make the time.”
  • Ambition and resilience. “Keep striving for more. Focus on your guests and what they want. And never accept the status quo.”

—by Marjorie Preston

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