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All Together Now

In gaming, the future is female, and it starts now

All Together Now

The sixth edition of GGB’s annual spotlight of influential women in gaming encompasses all walks of the industry, which symbolizes the expansive and comprehensive wave of diversity that has stretched to nearly all corners of the globe. By now, it’s no secret that in order for the industry to continue growing at a record pace, it will take a unified effort, one that includes all voices and experiences. Each generation is a catalyst that works to inspire the next, and thankfully for those just starting out, the path has been paved by innumerable trailblazers and innovators, five of whom we are proud to present as this year’s women who shine.

 

Tashina Lazcano, Director of Marketing & Communications, Konami Gaming

The Music Maker

In order to succeed and grow long-term, every company needs top-tier talent in its front-facing departments, the people who can champion the message that the company is working towards and bring it to the masses—almost like a performer, an artist who can make sense of the internal humdrum and transform it into a sweet song.

Tashina Lazcano, director of marketing and communications for Konami Gaming, is an embodiment of this metaphor, having migrated to gaming with a background in the performing arts and tech industries. When she saw an opening at Konami in mid-2014, she was attracted to the bright lights of Las Vegas as well as the supplier’s “iconic, global brand,” and even though her initial interview was conducted in a temporary office, she knew that she “wanted to be part of what they were creating.”

And create she has—less than 10 years later, Lazcano has risen to become one of the preeminent communicators in the industry, and is active in professional organizations such as Global Gaming Women and Women in Games International.

“In this moment reflecting back, I believe it’s been a journey with very real moments and creative substance,” Lazcano says. “I see very real moments, in that every employee in our organization has a tangible, observable importance in the success of Konami and the success of the casinos we serve. So my actions and my performance have a real impact. And I’ve seen incredible creative substance in the entertainment and technology we deliver to the gaming floor. As a leading global developer, we play a major role in shaping creative and meaningful guest experiences, today and into the future.”

In some ways, Lazcano’s success in gaming is not surprising, given that it is a combination of entertainment and cutting-edge tech, both of which tap into her previous experience. As she notes, her work gives her the opportunity to “help transform how people play,” which is an incredibly important initiative in an industry whose demographics are aging, and quickly.

“It’s more digital, convenient, connected, comfortable, creative and vibrant than when I first entered the industry,” Lazcano says. “I’ve seen casino operators, suppliers, developers and regulators work cooperatively to responsibly expand the industry’s value to consumers, as well as our communities. Together, I’m optimistic we’ll continue to transform gaming spaces to engage and entertain players in new ways.”

Keeping pace with an evolving industry is never easy, especially in marketing and communications, where “there is an endless list of things we could be doing: more content, more partnerships, more ads, more emails, more events.” However, the key, as Lazcano asserts, is to get a clear sense of your company’s “goals, objectives, audience, timeframe and resources” so that you can create “an informed structure of prioritization” and work efficiency.

With respect to burnout and difficult times during one’s career, she finds that it’s best to fill all the available space, and make the most out of a given circumstance. Small changes like hybrid work schedules during busy periods and extra degree programs and certifications during down times, she argues, help to keep the wheels turning even if things feel stagnant. This also makes you a more valuable resource and allows you to make decisions “from a position of power, and not as an obligation.”

In between the endless marketing mania, Lazcano’s artistry can be heard through a different medium, as a clarinet and saxophone player for the Desert Winds ensemble.

—Jess Marquez

 

Krystal Jones, Senior Vice President & Chief Financial Officer, Live! Casino Philadelphia

‘Forever Student’

As a girl, Krystal Jones always carried a pocket calculator, so she could tally up purchases at the supermarket or toy store. For her, it was for “the enjoyment of all things numbers and money.”

Small wonder, then, that Jones went on to pursue in a career in finance. In November 2020, she was appointed senior vice president and chief financial officer at Live! Casino Philadelphia, a $700 million Cordish Companies property in the heart of the South Philly sports district, home of the Sixers, Flyers, Eagles and Phillies.

The Los Angeles native attended the University of Mississippi on an athletic scholarship, then headed to Nevada, where she started as an accounts payable analyst with Caesars Entertainment.

“I knew Excel at the time, and I think that’s why I got hired,” she says with a laugh. “What sold me on a gaming career was being exposed to so many different things: your casino, your restaurants, your bars, your hotels, learning so much in just one role. It’s always something new, always some new fire (to extinguish). That’s what I enjoyed.”

Jones credits her rise to “a desire to learn, an inquisitive nature and always asking why. You have to be a forever student. There are always technology changes and ways to do things better.”

After five years with Caesars, ending as director of finance for Harrah’s Laughlin, Jones moved on to MGM National Harbor, which was preparing to open outside Washington, D.C.

“The one thing I hadn’t done was open a casino, and my forever-student mentality was piqued. It was a chance for me to learn how to build from the ground up, learn a new jurisdiction, learn how to write policies and procedures from scratch—it deepened my understanding of casino operations from the bottom up.”

The mother of two young girls acknowledges the challenges facing women in leadership. “There aren’t a lot of us, unfortunately, still, but it’s definitely getting better. When you have the support of other women who understand your journey and the difficulties of balancing motherhood and work demands, you can get through the difficult times. It’s great having someone to listen to you vent. I have people that I go to, and I try to be that for other women leaders.”

She thanks Cleo Whipple, Caesars’ vice president of shared services, for recognizing her talent and championing her growth. “She put me in front of a lot of people when projects needed to be done. Her mentorship early on really helped me get where I am today. It also shaped how I interact with other younger leaders and women who aspire to leadership.”

Jones still enjoys the 1,001 challenges that arise at a multifaceted entertainment destination. “You have to wear a lot of hats and swap them out throughout the day,” she says, adding that Live!, which debuted in February 2021, is “doing well in an established market.

“More and more people are becoming aware of who we are, what we offer and all the great things under our roof. We’re making a name as a premier destination to game and have fun. There’s a lot of energy, especially when there’s a concert or a game.

“Every day is different,” she says. “There hasn’t been a dull moment since I got into gaming in 2011. I was lucky I was there when an accounts-payable position needed to be filled.”

—Marjorie Preston

 

Melinda Coffin, CEO, Soaring Eagle Gaming

A Perfect Match

Since the mid-1990s, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan has risen from struggle to sufficiency to a level of prosperity that benefits the whole community.

The tribe’s Soaring Eagle Casino opened in Mount Pleasant in 1996, followed by Saganing Eagles Landing in Standish in 2008. Together, the resorts have made the tribe the largest employer in Isabella County and contributed more than $170 million in revenues to state and local governments.

Melinda Coffin, CEO of the gaming organization, almost missed the success story. At 8 years old, she contracted a mysterious ailment that was repeatedly dismissed as flu. Finally, she was correctly diagnosed with kidney disease, and went on dialysis the same day. Without that intervention—and three kidney transplants—“I probably wouldn’t be here,” she says.

Health issues never deterred the ambitious young woman. Coffin was the first in her family to attend college, at the University of Central Michigan, where she discovered a passion for business. In the mid-1990s, MBA in hand, she was appointed a gaming commissioner. “It was the perfect match to learn the business,” she says, “because you have to know everything: all the games, all the rules and requirements.”

She then spent five years on the hospitality side, studying hotel operations, food-and-beverage, maintenance and customer service. Even then, she says, she had her eyes on the top job.

“An employee once asked me, ‘Did you ever see yourself becoming CEO?’ I said, ‘Yes I did.’ It was my long-term goal to lead our gaming industry for the future of everyone here.” In October 2021, she became the first tribal member and the first woman to be appointed chief executive of Saginaw Chippewa Gaming Enterprises.

“It was a little overwhelming at first—like, what did I get myself into? But I really want to be a role model for our youth, especially our young ladies, to show them anything’s possible if you set goals for yourself and stay focused. You have to make a lot of sacrifices along the way, because it’s a lot of hard work. But it’s really worth it in the end.”

In a crowded market—Michigan has three commercial casinos and a dozen tribal operations—Coffin says the Saginaw Chippewa resorts are holding their own, and then some.

“Head count is down slightly, because people have a lot less disposable income now, but they’re still coming, and we’re doing everything we can to incentivize them,” with free play, entertainment and new amenities, including restaurants, she says. “I give a lot of thanks to our marketing department. Everyone knows Soaring Eagle.”

In 2022, the tribe also launched an online casino and sportsbook, which are already outstripping more established competitors.

Without the generosity of three matching organ donors, including her mother, brother, and a deceased donor, Coffin may not have survived childhood. She’s grateful to them all, and gives special thanks to her mom, Dorothy Ann Shawano, who “really showed me the importance of a great work ethic.”

Shawano worked for the state Department of Corrections, and moved often during Coffin’s childhood, following the work where it took her and taking the family along. “She’s a very strong Native woman who made a lot of sacrifices to provide a better livelihood for my siblings and me,” says Coffin. “I do my best to make her proud.”

As a leader, Coffin aspires to live up to her spirit name, “Little Bear Woman,” which was bestowed in a tribal ceremony when she was ill.

“My family is part of the Bear Clan, known as healers and protectors,” she says. “I’ve always been very protective of my family and friends, and as a professional, I’m responsible for protecting the best interests of our businesses. My role allows me to make decisions that are crucial for our success.”

—Marjorie Preston

 

Susan Jensen, Executive Director, California Nations Indian Gaming Association

Defending Sovereignty

In 1998, Susan Jensen became the first staff hire for the nascent California Nations Indian Gaming Association. Jensen saw her initial role as a communicator with member tribes, trying to get the word out about Prop 5, the campaign to approve tribal gaming rights in California. Jensen helped coordinate the meetings that led to the 1999 tribal/state compacts that were signed by 61 tribes.

Jensen admitted she knew little about the campaign at the start. She learned. “My love for the protection of tribal rights developed quickly,” she says, “and has allowed me to be involved in major tribal victories including the landmark Prop 5 and Prop 1A, the implementation of the first tribal-state gaming compacts in California.”

Named executive director of CNIGA in 2016, Jensen also handled last year’s costly debacle of Prop 27, which went down to defeat along with its opposition Prop 28. Both dealt with sports betting issues.

“Prop 27 was an attempt by out-of-state corporate gaming operators to legalize online sports wagering,” Jensen says. “California voters saw through the deceptive claims made by corporate operators hoping to legalize internet sports wagering. We are thankful to the voters for understanding the important role tribal governments play in providing good jobs and a positive economic impact to the California economy. We are glad they voted to keep vital gaming revenue in California.”

Just like the voters of California, tribes are looking for the best path forward, both for tribal governments and the people of California, Jensen says.

That tribes appointed a woman to run the organization comes as no surprise to Jensen. “Tribes have respected the importance of women within their society,” she says. “That is still true today and is visible by the vast number of female tribal leaders elected to serve their tribal governments. As a result, I have not felt a bias from tribal members.”

A native of Napa, California, Jensen can’t say the same thing about her dealings with the gaming industry as a whole. “I have definitely experienced gender bias within the gaming industry as a whole, as well as in my dealings within the political spectrum. Over time this has certainly gotten better, and it has made me a stronger person by learning to adapt to various people and different personalities.”

While the path forward may look different for each tribe, especially when it comes to gaming, California’s tribal nations are united in purpose, she says. “I am proud of the role CNIGA plays in bringing leaders together,” says Jensen, who was raised in Santa Rosa. “That purpose is the protection of tribal sovereignty and the gaming rights that come with their sovereign status. Like other governments, tribal governments are unique, and face unique circumstances based on location, population and tribal priorities.”

This is especially true in California, with its large geographic and demographic area.

What tribal government gaming does is provide an opportunity for tribal governments to fund vital governmental services. Unlike corporate gaming, 100 percent of gaming revenue generated by a tribal casino is taxed by the tribe to pay for roads, infrastructure, health care for members, elder services, education, etc.

“My focus for 25 years has been the protection of the inherent sovereign rights of all tribes, gaming and non,” Jensen says. “My hope for the future is to see all tribes prosper and get to the point where every tribe is self-sufficient and able to freely exercise their inherent sovereign rights.”

—Bill Sokolic

 

Cathryn Lai, Chief Commercial Officer, OpenBet

Sports Betting Pioneer

Cathryn Lai might not think of herself as a pioneer, but her role as chief commercial officer at OpenBet indicates otherwise.

Lai is one of the few female executives in the sports betting industry. Lai, who is also an accomplished musician, has been in the gaming industry for nearly two decades.

Lai has been in her current position at OpenBet for nearly two years. She joined the former Scientific Games in 2018, and made the transition to her CCO role when Light & Wonder divested the sports betting division.

“In my role is as chief commercial officer, I am in charge of all the commercial activities and go-to-market strategy, commercial strategies, working with our internal teams to get live with new customers, being on the forefront of emerging markets and just building the strategy to what that is tied to.”

She began her career in retail gambling and moved to the sports betting side shortly after the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was repealed by the Supreme Court in May 2018.

“It was a growing market, and it continues to be a growing market,” Lai says about sports betting. “It reminded me of the days 16-17 years ago when gaming was becoming regulated in more and more states. I felt this was similar, and an opportunity I had to jump on.”

What Lai found when she got into the sports betting industry, however, was there weren’t a lot of women in the industry, especially in management or executive positions.

“When you look around at CEOs or leadership positions and you don’t see a lot of women, you are going to say, ‘Is that for me?’ You can talk about an intimidation factor, but I think it’s less about intimidation and more about seeing if there are more people here like me that ascend into these roles,” Lai says.

At OpenBet, Lai has spearheaded initiatives that help introduce women to the industry.

“A woman is more likely to join a team when they see more women there,” she explains. “I look at my team and I have a pretty high percentage of women relative to other organizations in sports betting. That’s for a reason. I know there are a lot of brilliant women out there that may not be familiar with the space but will excel in it.”

The same is true for women who want to participate in sports betting.

“There are a lot of statistics out there, but one is, women represent 50 percent of sports fans, and yet if you look at what percentage women represent of bettors, it is 35 percent,” Lai says. “So clearly, there is a growth opportunity here. I think overall, a lot of the operators are addressing it, as well as the B2B side too. We are making sure we are creating odds and content for a lot of the women’s sports.”

Lai points to the Women’s World Cup as an example.

“We offered same-game parlay bets like player stats, shots, shots on target, assists, passes,” Lai says. “It’s the first time we have done this for women’s soccer across the board.”

It is an industry Lai is very bullish about.

“I think it’s going to continue to grow, especially in the U.S.,” she says. “There are a lot of huge states that have not legislated and are on their way. I also think sports bettors will become more mature. They’ll look for more diversity in what they can bet on.”

—John Reger

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