G2E: Women executives reveal secrets to help counterparts thrive in gaming industry

G2E: Women executives reveal secrets to help counterparts thrive in gaming industry

  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
October 10, 2021 12:56 AM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
  • Other

Women in the male-dominated world of gaming management understand the challenges facing them: They have to work far harder than their male counterparts; they have to accomplish more, but be cautious about drawing attention to themselves; and they get plagued by self-doubt.

During the Global Gaming Expo, which ended Thursday, four women with decades of achievement in the industry offered advice for those who feel caught in the quagmire.

“Don’t be afraid and don’t apologize for being who you are,” recommended Maxine Velasquez, president and CEO of Laguna Development Corp., a New Mexico gaming, hospitality, and retail-based business with annual revenues of more than $200 million.

“Know that you’re worthy and … you’ve worked your way into a position that you belong in,” encouraged Sheila Morago, executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association for 10 years.

“Whatever your core value is, don’t let go of it,” counseled Cynthia Kiser Murphey, a former MGM Resorts International executive recently chosen by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to be general manager of Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

“When you plug in women and just give us an opportunity, we can do amazing things,” observed Erica Pinto, chairwoman of Jamul Indian Village in Alpine, Calif., after describing how a group of women executives rebranded the tribe’s casino in 90 days, despite being told it couldn’t be done.

The four spoke Wednesday, the last day of G2E’s education sessions. Kiser Murphey was the focus of a one-on-one interview by Katie Lever, chief legal officer of Lottery.com, as part of Global Gaming Women’s “Trailblazers: Power of Questions” series. Velasquez, Morago, and Pinto participated in a panel discussion, “Native American Women in Gaming: Empowerment Through Unity.” Steph Poston, founder of Poston & Associates, a Native American woman-owned communications firm, moderated the discussion.

Morago had a straightforward answer when asked how the tribal-gaming industry can elevate women. “Stop talking about it being inclusive and start doing it,” she said. “We’re making strides, but we have so much further to go.”

After Velasquez said the National Indian Gaming Association should establish leadership training specifically for women, NIGA chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., speaking from the audience, said, “Women need to continue to be recognized and their role needs to be continued to be expanded.” He said NIGA will seek the panelists’ advice on establishing leadership training programs for women.

In the Trailblazer interview, Kiser Murphey told of invaluable lessons she learned from a mentor, Terry Lanni, longtime MGM executive who died in 2011. His mantra was, “You have only one thing, and that’s your integrity.” She heard him repeat it several times before the full meaning sunk in.

“He always took the high road,” Kiser Murphey said. “He always went back to integrity, which means sometimes you have to be very tough and tell the truth and speak out.”

Kiser Murphey said one of her core values is family, so much so that one of her sons, now 25, has a quarter-million frequent-flyer miles from all the business trips she took him on as a child, starting at age three. “It’s important to take your family with you whatever you’re doing,” she said. “(When you’re) commuting, you don’t have to leave your family behind. My kids have grown up in hotels.”

Women should be prepared for slights as they carry out their jobs. Pinto said she still gets called “kiddo,” even though she’s almost of the age to be an elder in her tribe. When Velasquez was interviewed for the Laguna Development CEO opening, she was one of three finalists. She said that while she had negotiated three gaming compacts, served as Gaming Commission chair, and worked in economic development, the other two, both male, had far less education and experience.

Pinto encourages all women to support one another. A tribal internship program is helping young women learn the gaming business and Pinto reminds the interns they will eventually be in charge. “I told them to get each other’s backs. When they build that foundation, they can only grow stronger.”

“Whether it’s in Indian Country or just as a woman in general in this world, we have to work hard,” Velasquez said. “The lesson learned for me is persistence. Never give up. Keep working. Keep battling. Keep meandering, keep pivoting, and keep doing what you want to do to get to where you want to get.”

Morago said women shouldn’t be overly concerned about making mistakes. “Never be afraid to jump into the deep end of the pool,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because that’s where you learn, and you only learn by taking on new challenges.”

Kiser Murphey told the Trailblazers audience that she felt totally unprepared for the assignment of overseeing a $125 million hotel-remodeling project when she wasn’t comfortable with decorating her own house.” That taught her a valuable lesson. “When you’re out of your comfort zone, look at your team and draw from them. What you’re not good at, somebody else is.”

She had a final piece of advice for women feeling overwhelmed by their challenges. “Relax and slow down and celebrate the moment. Don’t be so worried about what’s happening next.”

Mark Gruetze is a veteran journalist from suburban Pittsburgh who covers casino gaming issues and personalities.