Career Nav #62 – Gaming, AI, and Excelling as a Black Woman Leader in a Male-Dominated Industry
Natalia Daies, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Women Who Code, interviews Anika Howard, President and CEO at Wondr Nation. They discuss gaming's present and future, the role of AI in the gaming industry, and Anika’s journey to leadership, excelling as a Black woman leader in a male-dominated industry.
Tell us a little about yourself and when you first got interested in gaming.
I've been in the gaming industry for a long time. My interest and passion have always been in this intersection of technology and creativity. I always say that the gaming industry found me. Many of my interests in business school were more towards entertainment or animation. It was a coincidence that I was introduced to Harrah's Entertainment through their MBA summer internship. I was exposed to different opportunities and understood the breadth of what was available in the gaming industry. It's something that I've been able to grow and flourish in. Sometimes, you have one path laid out, but life throws you a curveball. It's been a very interesting and exciting curveball and journey.
Can you tell us about your journey in tech and how you've navigated that?
When I started in gaming, it was not diverse. I remember doing my initial internship rotation in New Orleans. That was a great introduction. I was in a program called the President's Associate Program. It's a pretty prestigious program at Caesars Entertainment. They do a lot of recruiting from high-potential MBA students and give them a rotation through gaming and introduction into the industry, with the expectation of building leaders for the organization. It was a unique opportunity to get a bird's eye view of gaming, not just from a technology standpoint but from a core people and operations standpoint. We went through a rotation where I learned every functional area within the casino.
I also had the opportunity to open a casino. It was a unique opportunity to be exposed to so many different aspects of gaming at once and understand very distinctly that I had a different way of looking at things. As I looked at the operations, marketing, and all of these different things, a big thing that I was very acutely aware of was ways to interject technology to make it different, create a different experience, and layer on different elements. Things that were second nature to me were things that, when I talked to other people about, they said, "No, I never thought about that. I never saw that."
One of the first curveballs was doing my rotation early in my career. I had the opportunity to meet the head of Human Resources and many board members. A very basic conversation created the first pivot in my life. We had a really honest conversation about my vision, my interests, and how I saw my career developing at the company. Within a week, I was interviewed for an opportunity in Las Vegas. I became the first interactive employee for the company. A big part of what I started was to build out the strategy, infrastructure, and vision for how interactive and online looked and evolved for the company.
Vegas was a big culture shock. I remember calling my mom after a week there and saying, "There are no Black people here. I'm here by myself." I started building relationships, meeting people, and finding my community there. From New Orleans, where there was diversity in the city, growing up in Washington, DC, at the time was Chocolate City. It was a big adjustment for me from a cultural standpoint,
What challenges did you have to overcome outside of experiencing the cultural lack of diversity?
I think in the management rotation program of the President's Associate, I was probably the first African-American woman. This was a new strategic position direction for the company. I was the first person in this specific role. It was at a time when now you think 20 years later that it's a no-brainer that technology is important. At that time, there was this feeling that technology would not be something that would be embraced by gaming or gaming customers.
I remember getting sent to Lake Tahoe to meet with one of the gaming executives there. You have this young Black person coming into a seasoned person who's been in the company for 25 years. A big part of what I try to do is be empathetic and open to saying that one of these things is new. I think the areas I struggled with were sometimes, in many cases, I didn't speak up. I wasn't a big of an advocate for myself. Early in my career, I didn't network. No one would outwork me, but the social things made me anxious.
How did you navigate finding mentorship?
It was trial and error. You build relationships with like-minded people with the same kind of direct interest. You often think of a mentor as your senior, but your mentor can often be your peer. Initially, I started having a lot of peer mentors. Separately, I built relationships with business partners and internal customers. The other piece was in the President's Associate program. I did have some mentor opportunities built in.
As you grew in leadership, took on more responsibility, and experienced more success, how did you navigate success and that growth in a male-dominated industry?
The biggest part for me was being the person I didn't have. I created an infrastructure and a network that would be supportive. When I created my first team, we had a team event, and we were putting on a workshop. Someone joked, "Well, you've created a rainbow coalition," and I was proud. They were all super bright and super smart. We were highly functional and highly effective. I wanted to create a model to show you can have diversity and a team to deliver the desired results. I think one of the things that has helped me navigate is just that consistent passion. I'm working with an organization called Global Gaming Women. It's been incredible in terms of having a strong set of women leaders and being able to bring and cultivate other women leaders.
What advice would you give to women of color looking to enter the gaming industry?
One of the things that I like about the industry is that it is a show-me industry. Your results, in many cases, create your reputation. There've been opportunities for me that have presented because of results that I've been able to do. It's a relationship-driven industry. You need to be prepared. Do informational interviews and do your research. With gaming, there's so much data. It's a data-rich industry, and you can learn so much. Also, relationships will shape what's going forward. Be an advocate for others as well.
Can you tell us a little bit about Wondr Nation and the work that you do?
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is based in Connecticut, and they're the tribe that owns Foxwoods Resort Casino. They were one of the original tribes to lean into gaming to build wealth and generational opportunities for their tribe. I initially joined and moved to Connecticut to lead Foxwoods as their Brand Marketing and Digital head. I would work a lot with social casino gaming and help with lobbying to get the legislation approved to allow gaming expansion in Connecticut.
Fast forward to the pandemic, which changed everything for everyone. I was part of the team that closed down the casino and kept the lights on during that period in terms of communicating, using social media, and using lots of different tools to keep players and team members connected. During that process, one of the things that became apparent was that the tribe and most hospitality companies needed to find opportunities to diversify. How do you grow and create opportunities beyond this physical casino?
The tribal chairman and the tribal council reached out and said, "We want to start thinking through how, as a nation, we create this next opportunity. How do we diversify and reduce our dependence on just this resort experience? We have all these other entities, but we want to finally really lean into doing something in the interactive space." They asked me to put something together: how Wondr Nation was created.
Wondr Nation is an online gaming entertainment company. It's focused on creating experiences beyond the physical casino space, and the primary revenue drivers are online gaming. After the pandemic, the tribe successfully, with the other tribe in the state, reached an agreement with the State of Connecticut that allows for online gaming and sports betting in the state of Connecticut. The license for online gaming and sports betting lies with Wondr Nation. We partnered with them to bring online gaming to Fox under the Foxwoods brand. That's one part of it. The other part of it is social gaming. Social gaming is like if you think of Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and FarmVille, but more casino-style gaming. We create this free-to-play game experience that allows people who don't want to gamble real money to have that experience.
The final revenue driver that we are working on is professional services. In addition to having our own B2C, business-to-consumer products, we are building a model that allows us to provide professional services to other tribes. Foxwoods, for example, is our client. We manage their social casino product for them. We are working to build that model to allow it to expand for other casinos and other tribes. We're also looking at opportunities in eSports and the metaverse and figuring out how the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation can be and stay at the forefront of this space and create opportunities.
One of our core missions is reimagining gaming entertainment, amplifying diverse voices, and creating a pipeline of tribal talent. We've created lots of social programs designed to do that. We have a Wondr Nation Apprentice program where we have a wonderful opportunity to bring in a recent high school graduate to go through the program. We are in the process of finalizing and recruiting for our Wondr Nation Associate program. The idea is to create a rotation program through all the different functional areas within Wondr Nation. This will include marketing, operations, finance, real money gaming, and social. We want to create an opportunity for someone with this full-circle, well-rounded gaming knowledge.
We have an endowment from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. A big part of that is how you layer on interactive and creative experiences, unique experiences, into the storytelling of telling the tribe's history. The final part, we call Wondr Smart Labs. At a very young age, that's how you start getting children excited about technology, creativity, and their culture. We are creating curricula and programs that allow the intersection of technology and creativity. It allows them to tap into that.
What are your thoughts on how you think AI will influence the future of gaming?
It will fundamentally change how we do and operate in many areas. From a marketing perspective, I think what we've already seen in testing is that you see some AI-generated artwork and some AI-generated prompts for marketing messages. There are so many things that it can streamline. I think it will create the need for a different type of marketer. You'll need people who are educators for the AI tool to help teach the AI to learn your organization's brand. I see a big opportunity in customer relationship management and how we manage and build marketing campaigns.
From analysis and analytics, we see it now when you look at Office 365 and other products that put some of those prompts in. If done correctly, you can ask and prompt AI for some of these questions. They can zero in on things that will take an analyst, coder, or data scientist weeks and months to create the prompts and the infrastructure to do that. We see the same thing regarding anti-money laundering and some of the other compliance-related pieces of it. I think it helps you identify issues earlier in the process. AI, if done correctly, can create an easier way to access information that you need to make decisions and to create experiences more efficiently, and allows you to focus on some of the areas that allow you to create better experiences.
What is the most exciting thing happening in gaming right now?
Every couple of years, there are fundamental shifts in the industry, and I feel that there's one coming now. Everyone comes together and decides, "This is the way everything happens. This is the best practice for how everything happens." You create this sea of sameness of very homogeneous things.
On a separate platform, you said living has become urgent. Can you say a little bit about that, what that means for you, and what it can mean for Black women and other underrepresented technologists interested in gaming?
We just finished up a retreat, and I was talking to one of our team members, and the sentiment came up. I think a lot of people feel that Covid has stolen so much in terms of years. With the Great Resignation, I think people realized that they were living in a fog. Once some of those things and entanglements you thought were important were taken away, you realize they were handcuffs instead of comforts. It allowed you to say, "Life is bigger than the box I put it in." Everyone has a sense of urgency because you were separated in this fog. You felt like your life was on pause.
You always knew that life is precious. You always knew everything wasn't promised. You always knew that you never would have time for everything. Now, to physically see and come out of that manifestation, realizing you have this one life. I feel like there's a sense of urgency to live it. I think we are being more intentional about the life that we live.
Do you have a favorite video game or game you're playing right now?
They're games that I play with my nieces and nephews, between Roblox and etcetera. I'm in it so much that I disconnect. I write. I love photography. I'm an artist at heart. Right now, I don't have a favorite.
Guest: Anika Howard, President and CEO at Wondr Nation
Host: Natalia Daies, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Women Who Code
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, WWCode