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Gaming’s Greatest Misconception: “It’s a Man’s World”

“Too often the great decisions are originated and given form in bodies made up wholly of men, or so completely dominated by them that whatever of special value women have to offer is shunted aside without expression.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

The gaming industry has long been thought of as a man’s world. Pop culture portrays casino management as mysterious with strong male role models who have dark and murky backgrounds. Its vendors are usually depicted as powerful, all-male executive boards making sweeping decisions while the all-male regulators are tough-to-crack do-gooders.

Although there was a time when these archetypes actually existed, it certainly isn’t today. Now we find female executives in all facets of the industry, bringing their strengths to our regulatory bodies, manufacturing companies and casino operation arenas.

Business leaders have been giving lip service to advancing females into executive roles for decades, but the sobering truth is that only 24 of the 2014 Fortune 500 companies have female chief executive officers. How is this possible?

Women are entering the workforce better prepared and more ambitious than ever with more education and higher career aspirations. How is it then that fewer than 5 percent will rise to the top position in their respective industries?

Be it IGT’s Patti Hart, Isle of Capri’s Virginia McDowell or former Nevada Gaming Control Board member and former Executive Director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute Patricia Becker, women have risen to the highest position possible within their chosen fields and each represents thousands of aspiring women like them.

Fortunately, profits are progressive, and at the end of the day the bottom line is more important than a candidate’s gender. The opening of the Cromwell in Las Vegas is a great example; women hold three of the top roles. Females also hold top positions at Caesars Entertainment; the Luxor; Excalibur; and New York, New York. Two of the largest and most profitable U.S. tribal properties, Sycuan and Soaring Eagle, are empowered by female CEOs.

Women leaders in the gaming industry, both in corporate and Native America, work extremely hard to earn their positions and shape their dynamic working environments. From these talented women, there is much to learn, and in the next several articles we’ll highlight two of the most powerful, intelligent, female executives shaping the Native America gaming landscape: Sheila Howe and Wendy Reeve.

Shelia Howe
Sheila Howe is the general manager for Sycuan Casino, one of the largest tribal casinos in the state of California. She has been in the gaming profession for more than 30 years and has held virtually every casino position during her career.

Howe honed her skills working at the Peppermill in both Reno and Las Vegas, acquiring aptitudes that would serve as the cornerstones for her successful career. Howe is a strong advocate of mentorship for the members of the tribe she represents and the staff it employs. She received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from California Coast University.

Everyone has a story about how they ended up in the gaming industry; tell us about how you were drawn to the field.
Sheila Howe: I was born and raised in Las Vegas and went to work in casinos at the age of 21 to pay for my education. I didn’t have plans to stay in gaming; instead, I was really set on becoming a nurse. I worked in many different positions throughout the casino during college, starting as a bartender. By virtue of an accounting background, I was able to move to the accounting department and worked in credit, tables and slots. During that time, I fell in love with the industry and every job in it!

Now, more than ever, women hold many of the industry’s power positions. What do you think has changed to make this possible?
SH: Women have been increasingly accepted at the higher positions as my career has progressed. I think it’s because women have increasingly pursued the key positions and persevered by making smarter, but perhaps harder, decisions balancing family with their careers. Part of this is because the struggling economy demanded they work harder to provide for their families. They want their families to have nice things, and those things come at a cost, which means they have to sacrifice their time.

What unique qualities do you think enable females to succeed in our industry?
SH: Women have realized they don’t have to settle or be married to get what they want. Although gaming moved very slowly with promoting females, women have become far more accepted in general manager positions. The tribal chairperson at my first tribal position was a female, and she was inspiring. It was then that I consciously realized women could efficiently run entire governments, which was somewhat obvious since they have been running families and households for thousands of years. Women were made for leadership roles; we’re very collaborative, know how to motivate people and see things in their entirety.

How has balancing family and your career had an effect on your life’s path?
SH: In my career, it took longer to reach the general manager position because I took time to raise my children. While I always worked, I made sure I took jobs that would accommodate raising the children first. I understood that one parent would always have to be there to accommodate the strength of our family. I was also fortunate to have a very successful husband. When my youngest child graduated high school, I took my first general manager position. I had turned down several other general manager positions before that, but this position came at the right time in my life.

Was it a hard decision to take on the challenge of being a general manager?
SH: I loved my role as director of casino operations. It was a fun and stimulating job, but I have to admit that the number-two position in the casino has rougher hours and the number-one position is more challenging because you have to deal with the politics. I wouldn’t say it was a hard decision; it was the right decision for me, and I’ve never looked back.

Wendy Reeve
Wendy Reeve is the chief executive officer for Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Mich., She has more than 30 years’ experience in the gaming industry. Reeve previously worked at Sycuan Casino as the director of casino operations for her friend and General Manager Sheila Howe. Reeve’s skill sets includes commercial, Tribal and international gaming experience having opened casinos in Aruba, Guatemala, Panama and Venezuela. She earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2004 and her master’s degree in business management in 2010.

How did you get your start in gaming?
Wendy Reeves: I was born and raised in London, England. I began my career in the casino industry by answering a newspaper ad for The Clermont, which was looking for croupiers. This was right after Playboy closed, which was where I really wanted to work as a Playboy Bunny dealer, but I wasn’t old enough before it closed. Because of that interest, I thought I would try out The Clermont and see if I liked it.

I spent four years on the cruise lines moving from line staff to management. It was a fantastic environment to learn all aspects of an operation: tables, slots, cage, surveillance, count, et cetera. Everything was done in-house back then, so as a manager you had to have knowledge of it all.
Starting in the summer of 2001, I spent 12 years at Sycuan and enjoyed my time there very much. One day while I was on the Casino Careers website looking for an executive IT director [for a position] we were looking to fill, I saw an opportunity that caught my attention—a CEO position for a casino in Michigan that just happened to be one of the largest casino operations in Native America. So, I applied, and they called me in for an interview, and the rest is history as I have been here for the last year.

After 30 years in the business, how do you stay focused and challenge yourself?
WR: I stay focused and challenged by keeping engaged and active. I don’t let any day become routine, and I challenge myself every day.

Women are increasingly holding executive and upper management positions in our industry. What do you think has caused this change?
WR: I think change happens in cycles. The cycle right now values matriarchal management as a warmer and more engaging alternative to the traditional male management style. Women are more hands-on. We are in the trenches with the frontline staff and have no problem doing the job with the team. Necessity leads to change. The next cycle may lean back towards the emotionally cooler male leadership model, but you never know.

What is it about female executives that make them well-suited for their positions?
WR: Male executives often feel like they have to make a decision on their own; women executives tend to make group-based decision, which fosters more of a team environment that makes people feel rightfully important. A consensus-based process builds respect and understanding for all involved and guarantees the final determination is well-reasoned.

This method also ensures the solution is based on the issue rather than the person. I also believe women can compartmentalize better than men, which allows us the flexibility to move from one project to another without bringing the emotions of the last decision to the table.

Authors’ Note: The interview continues next month as we ask Howe and Reeve about their thoughts on mentorship, gender equality issues in the workplace, myths about females in management positions and their advice for women aspiring to move further in their careers.

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