Virginia McDowell’s gaming industry Hall of Fame career started with another Hall of Famer from a different realm.
While working at Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City in the early 1980s, where she wrote the in-house newsletter, McDowell was given another task: Chauffeuring legendary baseball player Willie Mays to supermarket openings, school events, and other ceremonies as a Bally’s ambassador.
“I got to spend a lot of quality time with Willie, who, by the way, is a gentleman and an absolute delight to work with,” says McDowell, who will be inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. “It was fun to go to work every day.”
McDowell’s career, spanning four decades, has taken her from Atlantic City to gaming operations in St. Louis (Isle of Capri, as president and CEO) and Illinois (Argosy Gaming, senior vice president, operations). She currently serves as a non-executive director at Entain and is on the board of trustees at St. Louis University.
Throughout her career, McDowell has taken advantage of opportunities and learned from unique experiences, including being invited to the US Army War College for a week in 2011, where she interacted with civilians and military personnel, brainstorming and problem-solving. She even worked for Playboy – yes, Playboy! – for a year in the magazine’s marketing and entertainment divisions.
But the gaming industry has always been McDowell’s priority. Her native Philadelphia is about 60 miles from Atlantic City, and when gambling was legalized in the Garden State, she sensed there were opportunities. Even though until then, the industry was dominated by men.
“There were not a lot of women in senior positions and that changed significantly in New Jersey because there were so many opportunities,” she says. “I am very, very fortunate to start my career in gaming when there was an equal opportunity to compete and a tremendous opportunity to learn the business 40 years ago.”
But McDowell’s most significant contribution to gaming is arguably her advocacy for women. McDowell helped Global Gaming Women launch twice – first in 2011 as an AGA development and diversity program, and again in 2014 as a non-profit advocacy group.
“We are in an industry that is 50% female, so the women are there,” McDowell says. “But the question is: how do you move them into the management ranks? Because the original research that we did shows that’s where our issue was – 50 percent of the industry is women, but at that time you know maybe 9 or 10 percent are women in management and then when you advance to the C-suite, obviously even less than that. We understood the problem but how do you change this, how do you provide the opportunity for women to advance?”
McDowell notes that she’s been fortunate to have strong women mentors throughout her career. In turn, McDowell has proven to be a resource and mentor for hundreds of women in the gaming industry, including Cassie Stratford, the current president of GGW and Boyd Gaming Senior Vice President–Legal Operations and Compliance.
Stratford says it’s difficult to capture McDowell’s importance for women in the gaming industry.
“I think nobody can fully appreciate all the little ways that having a role model like Virginia who influences people around them,” Stratford says. “There’s something so valuable about looking around and seeing people who have done it and made it to the top rank. Having those role models is hugely impactful.”
But there’s something else about McDowell that impresses Stratford, a rare and remarkable quality: selflessness.
“You get a good sense of somebody in how they treat people who can do nothing for them,” Stratford says. “When I met Virginia, I had nothing to offer her and she, again and again, was willing to be generous with her time for me.”