AKWESASNE, N.Y. - Dianna Tarbell is changing the face of gaming, though she'd be the first to deny it. The mother of two has spent the past five years in the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino's top position - general manager - and has led the way to the casino's new success and become one of the most successful women in Akwesasne.
Tarbell has exemplified the growing role of women - and Natives - in the gaming industry, and her achievements are not going unnoticed. In February, she was one of 10 women from across the United States to receive a Great Women of Gaming award from the Casino Enterprise Management's Great Women of Gaming Conference. The honor was bestowed upon Tarbell after employees at the AMC secretly got together and decided to nominate her.
''I had no idea,'' Tarbell said. ''That was the ultimate gift in itself ... they said such nice things.''
The awards were given to women who showed an ability to go above and beyond their job responsibilities, were committed to their company and co-workers, made contributions to the gaming industry as a whole, were committed to mentoring and exhibited a strong overall life balance.
Tarbell's team of administrators shared information with each other and submitted letters of recommendation on her behalf, as did the three chiefs of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe - which owns the casino - along with other colleagues and peers.
''We believe that her commitment to company and co-workers, commitment to mentoring and her strong overall life balance have been critical factors in transforming a floundering, dysfunctional casino into a thriving healthy business on the verge of a $200 million expansion,'' wrote Alison Calkins, director of marketing at the casino.
As the SRMT Council wrote, Tarbell led the casino ''through its most difficult time in its seven-year history.''
During that period, in 2003, the casino's compact was ruled invalid by the New York State Court of Appeals, putting the facility's future in jeopardy.
''During that time, Dianna was able to keep the casino going even as our Class III machines kept breaking down and under the constant threat of closure of the casino by state and federal officials,'' the tribal council wrote.
The compact was ratified later that year, paving the way for a major expansion at the casino on the gaming floor. Hundreds of new slot machines were purchased, filling areas of the building that had been vacant since the casino opened in 1999. The casino is now seeing unprecedented success.
But Tarbell's success is not just about the casino's profitability. Her career is inspirational for women who don't believe they can start at the bottom.
In 1998, the SRMT was well on its way to building a casino. Tarbell applied for one of the first positions posted: human resources administrative assistant. She got the job and, with two daughters at home, ages 3 weeks and 1 year, she became one of the casino's first employees.
''I think I was paid $7.50 an hour,'' she recalled. ''I remember looking at the job descriptions and my highest aspiration was payroll supervisor.''
Tarbell's background in finance and business, with a BA from Syracuse University in business administration, made her feel confident to take on bigger positions with the casino in the finance department.
Slowly, as the casino opened and began to develop into a working business, Tarbell began to climb the ladder. Over the course of three and a half years, she held a number of finance positions and, in a short period, she attained her personal goal of payroll supervisor. She didn't stop there. She kept climbing through the positions of financial account manager, financial services manager, director of finance and director of casino operations.
Then, in January of 2002, she was appointed acting general manager for a one-month term, which was extended to six months.
In July of 2002 Tarbell became the AMC's sixth general manager - and the first female to hold the position. She was also only the second Mohawk to sit in that seat.
Five years later, Tarbell's success is obvious. She is adored by her staff, which is an earned admiration. Tarbell has the utmost respect for the front-line workers at the casino who are ''the heart and soul'' of the operation, she said.
''Dianna's door truly is open to all associates,'' Calkins wrote in her recommendation letter. ''For example, following a knee injury last year which temporarily confined her to a wheelchair, she moved from the inaccessible upstairs executive offices to an office on the main drag between the casino floor and the break room. A candy dish appeared on the corner of her desk and she lured everyone in for a hello or a chat. She enjoyed the everyday contact with casino associates so much that once healed, she never moved back upstairs.''
Tarbell refuses to take credit for the casino's success and instead believes that it's a result of a team of employees who have learned to change and grow as the casino has.
''When I see a team performing better than they could have imagined - that's rewarding,'' she said. ''People stretch out of their comfort zone and that's really inspiring.''
The respect Tarbell receives as the casino's general manager is also carried over to her role as a mother.
''She is raising two young daughters, and in spite of all the pressure at work, always takes the time she needs for them,'' said Dwight Terrance, director of information technology at the casino.
Tarbell herself believes her family has contributed to her success.
''Having little girls was the best thing that could have happened to me,'' she said. ''I never want them to be held back by limitations.
''There have been things I've missed,'' she acknowledged, adding that ''I'm really proud of their development. They have a really strong belief that there's nothing they can't achieve.''
While the casino is enjoying its new success and growing customer base, Tarbell and the casino associates are busy planning for the next project - a $200 million expansion that's in the early stages of development.
The project includes the construction of a multi-story hotel and a vast expansion of the gaming facility itself, which will allow for more entertainment opportunities and will increase the overall gaming experience for customers.
A feasibility study is under way and if things move forward, the casino administration will have to test their versatility all over again.
''I believe this tribe is absolutely exploding,'' Tarbell said. ''The casino industry is changing so rapidly.''
Change, Tarbell said, is exhilarating.
''I've learned not to be scared of it.''
Great Women of Gaming awards
The 2006 Great Women of Gaming awards were presented to 10 women from various areas of the gaming industry. Recipients were presented with their award at a special gala held in Las Vegas from Feb. 11 - 13.
Women selected for the awards were chosen for their ability to demonstrate ''perseverance, drive, commitment, mentorship and professionalism.''
The awards are sponsored by Casino Enterprise Management.
The following are the 2006 recipients:
"Delores Pigsley, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians tribal chairman; board member, Chinook Winds Casino Resort
"Diane Bennet, CEO, Paragon Gaming
"Rayleen Cudworth, vice president of information systems and enterprise resource planning, International Game Technology
"Heidi McNeil Staudenmaier, partner, Snell and Wilmer LLP
"Lesley Pittman, vice president of corporate and government relations, Station Casinos Inc.
"Judy Patterson, senior vice president and executive director, American Gaming Association
"Kate Spilde-Contreras, managing director, Center for California Native Nations
"Dianna Tarbell, general manager, Akwesasne Mohawk Casino
"Marilyn Winn, regional president, Bally's, Paris and Rio Las Vegas
"Karol Schoen, general manager, Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino