Distaff Excellence: Four Indian Gaming Execs Were Recently Honored as 'Great Women of Gaming'

This is the seventh year Casino Enterprise Management magazine, a leading gaming industry trade publication, training event producer and the “Official Publication” of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers (AGEM), has honored women executives in the gaming industry—both Indian and commercial.

Casino Enterprise usually names 10 Great Women of Gaming, but for the 2011 list, released in 2012, the judges were unable to break a tie in the Proven Leaders category, so there are six Proven Leaders and five Rising Stars.

The two Proven Leaders in Indian gaming are Marge Anderson, chief executive, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, and Valerie Spicer, executive director, Arizona Indian Gaming Association. The Rising Stars in Indian gaming are Jennifer Bryant, chief financial officer and vice president of finance at the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians’s Valley View Casino & Hotel in Valley Center, California; and Pamela Gallegos, Interim CEO, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Albuquerque.

Proven Leaders must have worked in the gaming industry for a minimum of 10 years and in their current position for at least one year. They must work for a gaming industry company and hold a position of director or higher. To qualify as a Rising Star, candidates must have worked in the gaming industry for a minimum of three years and have been in their current position for at least one year. They must also work for a gaming industry company and hold a position of manager or higher.

Venus, Jupiter and the moon will play coy with one another through mid-March.

Margaret Anderson (Courtesy Casino Enterprise Management)

Margaret Anderson is not only a Great Woman of Gaming, she’s a great woman, period. She has served more than 30 years in tribal government and was the driving force behind the opening of Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley just three and four years, respectively, after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was enacted in 1988. “When the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, we hoped that it would open up economic opportunities for the Mille Lacs Band and neighboring communities and be a tool to help band members overcome the poverty we had faced,” Anderson says, adding that the casinos have put the nation “in the driver’s seat” to create a strong regional economy for Indians and non-Indians. The Mille Lacs Band has invested gaming revenues to rebuild the reservation, create good jobs, develop regional infrastructure, support causes and organizations that benefit the entire community, and much more.
Anderson credits “the passion and leadership” of her predecessor, Mille Lacs Band Chairman Art Gahbo, for much of this success. Gahbow died while in office in 1991 soon after the Grand Casino Mille Lacs opened. “When I stepped into office after his passing, I knew I had to work hard so that I could help make his dreams a reality,” she says. She has led her nation ever since. Yet despite the tribe’s success, there are still band members with unmet needs, Anderson says. “The effects of poverty will likely linger for decades.”

The toughest decision the tribe faced was the choice to build the casinos, she says. “Banks refused to finance us because we had no money, so we faced a lot of discouragement searching for someone with the foresight to see the promise of Indian gaming. But once we made the decision to proceed, the easiest decision was to use business revenues to invest in the community. It was not too long ago that our members didn’t have access to health care, our families didn’t have decent homes, and our children didn’t have good educational opportunities. Grand Casinos and our other businesses have helped change that and helped us secure a strong future for our children.”

Anderson’s advice to young women entering the Indian gaming industry reflects Ojibwe cultural values: respect, hard work, kindness, and honesty. “I believe that if you stick to these four values, you can succeed at whatever you choose to do in life,” she says.

As for the future of gaming, Minnesota like other states is facing budgetary shortfalls and casting around for increased revenues. “Some see expanding gaming as a lucrative opportunity to bolster state and federal coffers. But they forget that the original purpose of gaming was to create jobs in tribal communities and rural areas,” Anderson says, adding that if the state gets into gaming, it will take away existing gamers from tribal casinos and relocate jobs from rural communities like Mille Lacs and Hinckley to metro areas. “Indian gaming will continue to be the economic development tool that it was created to be as long as the confines of gaming remain true to the goals of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

Valerie Spicer (Mescalero Apache)had more than 24 years of years of gaming experience before becoming deputy director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association (AIGA) at the beginning of 2011. Her earlier jobs include CEO of Gaming Strategies Group where she promoted business development with tribal enterprises, governments and consulted with tribal and individually owned businesses, and as a consultant to the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. She was selected by tribal leaders from among 80 candidates during a national search to fill the newly created deputy director post at AIGA. She has since been elevated to executive director. The association represents 17 tribes in the southwest.

In 2004, Spicer was named one of the “Top 25 People To Watch” by Global Gaming Magazine. She was co-chair of a landmark, 10-year Harvard/National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) national census data impacts study and founder and co-chair of the American Indian Business Network. She also served as founding chair of the NIGA Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation.

Spicer began working in the gaming industry in 1984, and moved her focus to tribal gaming in 1989. “I was torn on IGRA, as it was an infringement on sovereignty, yet I felt that if there was a potential to emancipate tribes from government dependency and stimulate tribal economies (which was a new term) then it may be a good thing,” Spicer says. She adds that she never anticipated that Indian gaming would grow and spread as it has. “It has been enriching to watch tribal communities grow, grow their resources, grow their infrastructure, grow their economies and most importantly grow their people.”

The toughest part of Indian gaming, Spicer says, is balancing the need to “create a presence and economic space” in gaming while “retaining the identity, culture and history of the tribes.” But the easiest thing was “promoting tribes to utilize the benefits of gaming for diversification and what I like to call economic sovereignty. With every ounce of self-sufficiency that is achieved I see the empowerment of tribal governments to choose their own destiny, to strengthen their own governments in a way that best suits the needs of their community and not a program.”

Spicer would advise a young woman entering the Indian gaming industry to be honest about her intentions and goals. “Don’t let anything that is not what you believe in steer you off course. Be passionate about what you do, because it will come back to you in the various experiences you will have, and the incredible people you will meet along the way.”

Jennifer Bryant is piling up the awards. In 2010, she was named Chief financial Officer of the Year by the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) which honors innovative thinking in developing the financial plans of a tribe, great leadership and success in implementing ideas for the overall betterment of a tribe. She was nominated for the award by Leilani Marquiss, Valley View Casino’s director of Finance. Marquiss cited Bryant’s uncompromising integrity, exceptional leadership and effective risk management, including her participation in the acquisition of $35 million in financing for Valley View Casino’s hotel project on behalf of the San Pasqual Casino Development Group Inc., the San Pasqual Band of Indians’ tribal corporation which oversees the tribe’s gaming operations. As the Secretary/Treasurer of development group, Bryant was at the forefront of the effort to be the first tribal entity in the country to take advantage of President Obama’s Stimulus Plan and the Build America Bonds program resulting in a 35% interest payment rebate.

Bryant has more than 20 years of finance experience, including work for Reuters America and as European financial manager and controller for the Walt Disney Company’s European film distribution division. Before joining the Valley View Casino team in 2007, she served for five years as the CFO at Viejas Enterprises. “I grew up on the east coast and at the time (2002), I wasn’t sure what these casinos on the reservations in California were all about. What I found very early on was what a tremendous opportunity I was presented with working for Viejas,” she says. Among her most satisfying accomplishments as CFO was the chance to create a corporate financial structure and a business model “and create something sustainable for the tribe.”

Bryant says one of the biggest challenges early on was getting financing and convincing lenders that there was no greater risk in financing and Indian enterprise that there is in anything else. “The biggest challenge is educating the financial community that these are good corporate citizens with long term views and an intense interest in success,” Bryant says.

Her advice to young women coming into the industry is “be flexible and identify a good mentor. Don’t set your career path and say, ‘I’m going to be this” and not leave yourself open to where your path may take you.”
Bryant sees the future of Indian gaming through the same lens as commercial gaming. “I think it’s very similar to all gaming now. It’s a regular gaming business now tied into the economy, to people’s disposable income.”

Pamela Gallegos is a joyful person admired by the people she works with. Here are some of the things they said about her—to her—in describing her job performance: “boundless energy, enthusiasm, a true love of the business and the job you do"; “true concern for your employees: always finds time to listen to their concerns and mentor them with a genuine, happy, positive attitude”; “believes that ‘family first’ is more than an unachievable concept. (You need to apply this more in your life & not just direct us to!)”; “able to balance demands of tribal entities with demands of business”; ”true feeling that the success of the business should be shared with all employees and selflessly believes bonus exclusively for the CEO only becomes divisive on the front line instead of unifying the staff as a team.”

Gallegos says, “I love working with people and they sense that I’m sincere and when I say something, I mean it and will follow through. I don’t always make the most popular decisions, but I’m thinking of long term business.”
Gallegos says she was working in the health care industry, but didn’t like the direction that work had taken—the fact that doctors and their patients were losing control of decisions. “I got into Indian gaming by accident. Once I got into Indian gaming, it was a whole new world. I had to learn about tribal politics and sovereign immunity and what that means and, quite honestly, how to use it to our advantage. Although I’m not tribal, I take this as my own. This is my family. This is my work family and it’s been very welcoming.”

“My goal—and something I believe any executive in gaming has to experience if you’re not tribal—is that a large part of your job is to groom and mentor tribal members for those higher positions. It takes time, effort and money. You have to decide, Do you want to invest in the future of this tribe and take the financial hit now? I know we can do better financially, but I don’t work for a tribe for the short term. I’ve got to see to their long terms goals.”
Gallegos advises young women entering the Indian gaming world to “keep their options open. Always work in any position you can work in for the simple fact that you need the experience. If you do that you’re going to be a better leader and having done that you have walked in other peoples’ shoes. Work hard. Work smart. Have a strong set of values, morals, ethics and high integrity, because it’s a tough world. It’s even tougher in gaming and it’s tougher for women. If you stay true to who you are and work hard, no one can take that away from you.”