The casino industry's last female CEO of a major company will head an organization that wants to increase the number of women inside gaming's executive offices.
Isle of Capri Casinos CEO Virginia McDowell, who is retiring in late April, will take the helm of Global Gaming Women as president and chairwoman. The group was created in 2011 by the American Gaming Association as a development program to mentor emerging female gaming leaders.
Based on the program's success and interest, Global Gaming Women has split from the association to become an independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
McDowell, who has been credited with Isle's expansion through regional gaming markets, hopes Global Gaming Women will find similar success in bringing women into leadership roles.
Among the initiatives the group plans to launch this year are 100 scholarships for women to attend leadership development conferences in the East, Midwest and South; launching mentoring circles at gaming companies throughout the U.S.; establishing a career advisory board and mentors for program graduates; and participating in panels at major gaming conferences, including the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.
The organization has secured nearly $1.5 million in multiyear-funding pledges from most of the major casino and gaming-equipment manufacturing companies.
"I called my friends, I called the boys," McDowell said. "They were very enthusiastic."
McDowell helped launch the Global Gaming Women through the Washington-based American Gaming Association with former organization official Judy Patterson and former International Game Technology CEO Patti Hart.
"We had so much feedback over the years from participants on how the programs changed their lives that we wanted to have it take on a more powerful presence," McDowell said.
She said the association was supportive of the split and took part in the initial funding commitments, along with MGM Resorts International, Seminole Gaming, Pinnacle Entertainment, Caesars Entertainment, Scientific Games, Rush Street Gaming, Isle of Capri, Penn National Gaming, Station Casinos, Boyd Gaming, IGT and Paragon Gaming.
Association CEO Geoff Freeman said the new structure would allow Global Gaming Women "to take its work to the next level and provide significant value to countless women in gaming."
Since its inception, the program has benefited more than 2,500 gaming employees.
According to the most recent association research, 48 percent of all casino industry employees are women.
"The opportunity is out there to educate our next generation of female gaming industry leaders," McDowell said. "Our goal is to see more women in leadership roles."
Several high profile female gaming executives are serving on the group's board with McDowell, including consultant Patty Becker, Pinnacle Executive Vice President Ginny Shanks, Station Casinos Chief Marketing Officer Staci Alonso and the presidents of several Strip resorts.
McDowell said the gaming industry has been supportive of gender diversity and the organization hopes its efforts will lead to more women landing midlevel management roles and higher — at least for now.
With McDowell's retirement, Diana Bennett, CEO of Paragon Gaming, and Holly Gagnon, CEO of Chumash Tribal Enterprises, are the highest profile women CEOs in the gaming industry. Both are on the Global Gaming Women's board.
"It's frustrating being the only woman CEO on every panel at every conference," McDowell said. "That has to stop."