iGB Most Influential Women 2018

This year’s gender pay gap reporting revealed that women remain under-represented at the top of business, and consequently so does their influence. The inaugural iGaming Business Most Influential Women list aims to redress the balance

Research shows that the more diverse and inclusive businesses are, the better they perform. According to McKinsey, companies with gender equality at a senior level perform better and for every 10% increase in gender diversity on senior executive teams, EBIT increases by 3.5%.

For now, though, quantitative measures of how the industry is doing in terms of diversity and inclusion are limited. What we do know is that, while men still greatly outnumber women in the higher reaches of the industry, there are some extremely accomplished women at senior level.

It seemed like the right time to make some noise about those women and to highlight their achievements as a reminder, to those coming through and anyone considering a career in igaming, that there are, as one of the women on our list put it, high rewards “for those who dare”.

A few of the names in this feature will not come as a surprise; after all, igaming boasts not just the highest-paid female business leader, but the highest paid, period. Her presence here reflects the fact that igaming is perhaps one of the few industries where the glass ceiling has been well and truly smashed, and there is a real opportunity for other women, other people from all backgrounds, to take advantage of that.

However, there are also some surprises in here. Some names you may not have heard of. It was important for us to make the process of identifying our first 10 most influential women as fair as possible, so we opened the nominations process up to the industry.

It is worth mentioning that each of the women on our judging panel received enough nominations to have been considered for the final list had they qualified for inclusion.

As this would have posed a conflict of interest, they were withdrawn from the reckoning. We thank them for waiving their likely positions on the list to share their insight and help us reach a fair conclusion on who should be featured.

Three rounds of judging later, we had settled on the final 10. It’s important to highlight that while drawing up this list was done as fairly as possible, we accept we were not judging from an exhaustive line-up of the women that make up this industry.

We hope this feature showcases not just what women in our industry are achieving today, but how rewarding a career in the gambling industry can be, irrespective of background.

Paula Cara Farcas, CTO, Colossus Bets

Farcas became chief technology officer at Colossus six months ago, having joined the supplier as a developer in October 2015. Just 24, she has had a stratospheric rise through the ranks since graduating in 2015 with a computer science degree from Babes -Bolyai University in Romania. Little over a year after joining Colossus, Farcas took the helm at Colossus Racing, and as the leader of partner integration grew Colossus’ network from five to more than 40 partners globally. She also led the development of Colossus’ cash-out product for Canadian racetrack Woodbine. Having worked through several obstacles relating to legacy technology on the operator’s side Farcas launched North America’s first ever cash-out product last year. Her latest challenge is steering her 20-strong tech team through the delivery of Colossus Racing’s new pools product in collaboration with BritBet and a consortium of 55 British racecourses this summer. Farcas says the most rewarding part of her job is seeing new products succeed in a highly competitive market. “I’m also equally proud of the numerous, albeit less visible, instances when we’ve worked around legacy technologies to deliver modernised outcomes for our partners,” she adds. “I now have an increased appreciation of how big a challenge it is to make an impact in this industry, and innovation coupled with adaptability is key.” Over the next few months Farcas will be focused on delivering the pools product, travelling widely to meet new racing partners and cementing relationships with existing clients. She advises other women aspiring to success in igaming to “look beyond the gender imbalance and just take the challenge”. Farcas points to the “conscious drive” by business to bring in more female leaders in the industry, adding “the rewards can be high for those who dare”.

Karolina Pelc, Casino Director, LeoVegas

Pelc has been heading up LeoVegas’ casino product and operations department for more than three years, having previously helmed the casino offering at Betsafe. Her career in the gambling industry started in land-based casinos as soon as she finished school and has gone on to span 15 years, the last five of which have been in a succession of senior roles. Last year she gained a raft of industry recognition for her work in launching LeoVegas’ live casino product, in particular for the implantation of the site’s dynamic API. Her work contributed to LeoVegas picking up awards for Best Live Casino and Best Mobile Product this year. Pelc also delivered multi-fold GGR growth to the relaunched LeoVegas Live product vertical and, in conjunction with partners at Evolution, expanded it from a three-table offering to more than 12 tables in a multi-language dedicated environment. Pelc is vocal about improving diversity in the industry and told iGB earlier this year that she frequently receives messages from women struggling to get a foot in the door. Having just returned to work after the birth of her son last year, she says her biggest challenge at present is finding the balance between career and family life. “I have some work to be done on mastering the implementation as I tend to work around the clock and feel I need to change that,” she adds. Despite needing to find a balance, Pelc is passionate about casino products and the process of bringing them to market. Her advice to women that want to do the same is: “Be confident and dedicated to your dreams and ambitions. Yes, you might have to learn how to communicate with diverse personalities and cultures to be well understood but don’t get held back from giving an opinion not to ruffle any feathers”.

Britt Boeskov, Chief Programme Officer, Kindred

Boeskov joined Kindred, then Unibet Group, in 2005 in a position that quickly evolved from management trainee to business development manager. During nearly three years in the role she added three new gambling product verticals, before being promoted to head of acquisition services in 2007, head of the customer service centre the following year and into the executive team as chief operations officer in 2009. Boeskov took the position of chief programme officer in 2016, the year that Unibet became Kindred, leading the new entity’s change management initiative Becoming Kindred. Flying relatively under the radar from an external point of view, she has been responsible for co-ordinating Kindred’s technical and commercial operations, guiding the 1,400-strong group to year-on-year growth across its key financials. Despite spending almost her entire career at Unibet, and latterly Kindred, Boeskov says igaming was “an unexpected career choice”. She was looking for “opportunities to learn, grow, take part, solve problems and develop this business beyond the imaginable” and the industry delivered. The judges remarked on Boeskov’s meteoric rise in an ever-changing business, where managing cultural change over the past two years has been key to its ongoing success. Boeskov describes the industry as “a fantastic place to grow for ambitious women”. Despite some companies still needing to do a better job of fostering more inclusive working environments, she reckons “your vocal support and leadership can push that change”, adding “there are so many progressive companies in our industry that really lead the way”. Boeskov’s advice to women wanting to enter the industry is to leap on the “tough”, “existential” challenges the industry faces in how it relates to customers and society. “Join new projects and ventures that aim at solving these. Don’t wait to become an expert, it’s part of the industry DNA that we’re learning as we go. Your contribution could make all the difference!”

Denise Coates, CEO, Bet365

Last year Coates became the highest-paid CEO in the UK, paying herself an astonishing £217m. She is reported to have accrued a net worth of £3.5bn since the launch of Bet365 in 2001. Coates entered the industry as a cashier in her father’s small chain of betting shops before growing the family business to the online gambling behemoth that it is today. Coates’ career in igaming is not a story of breaking through; it’s one of crafting the industry we know today. “I was running the family chain of betting shops when the internet was in its relative infancy,” she tells iGB. “I saw the opportunity that the internet provided to build a market-leading sports betting provider. I knew that the shop estate I was running was only ever going to be a good regional player. So we set about developing sports betting software and Bet365 was born.” Coates’ vision manifested the igaming industry’s biggest brand, one that is instantly recognisable even to those that don’t use it to bet. Coates flies under the radar as much as she can as far as publicity goes, but she remains highly engaged with the business. She says the best part of her job is “the challenge and excitement of running a global business along with the satisfaction of providing high quality jobs” and says her ongoing challenge is to “always to be the best at whatever I do”. Asked for a few words of wisdom for other entrepreneurial women looking to make their mark on the world, Coates says: “Work hard and focus on the detail. It’s the detail that sets you apart.”

Shelly Suter-Hadad, COO/MD, Mansion

Suter-Hadad joined Mansion as head of marketing operations in 2008, having entered the industry as a consultant a couple of years earlier. Ascending the company hierarchy steadily since then, she has been director of business development, CCO and now also managing director. Suter-Hadad led Mansion back into sports betting earlier this year, launching MansionBet via SBTech’s sportsbook and using its Chameleon360 platform. Since then, the new brand has inked sponsorship deals with Gibraltar’s World Pool MastersOne and horseracing’s York Cup. One judge described her as “completely committed and looking to buck the trend of the established players”. Suter-Hadad described the new product as “a very exciting challenge which is taking a considerable portion of my focus”. The launch is a bold move in a saturated market, but Suter-Hadad is taking a holistic approach to getting the brand USP, offering, digital presence and user experience right. “This includes leveraging on each effort across all marketing activities, including our CRM, acquisition channels and PR endeavours,” she explains. Her influence at Mansion and across the wider market was recognised with a Women In Gaming Award last year, the same year that she oversaw the rebrand of Mansion’s casino.com brand. Her advice to women wanting to make their mark on the industry is to think of yourself as a leader before all else. “Forget your nationality, your gender, your status or anything else holding you back,” she says. “Be brave! Go out there, speak up, share your ideas and take a chance! There is no perfect timing – good timing is good enough.” A natural mentor, Suter-Hadad says it is one of the most rewarding parts of her job to bring other people on and develop them. “Nothing is as rewarding as chaperoning someone through the process of self-discovery and development; setting audacious goals, achieving personal accountability and learning the power of persistence,” she says.

Irina Cornides, CEO, Jackpotjoy Gaming

Cornides has been CEO of the Jackpot Joy gaming brand since May, having successfully led its operations division since 2015. As one of the only female CEOs in the industry, she heads up a company that holds circa 22% of the UK bingo market. She joined the firm in 2014 following Intertain’s acquisition of bingo operator Mandalay Media, where she was managing director, which later became Jackpot Joy. She has also held senior roles at Party Gaming and BGO, as direct marketing manager and head of bingo, respectively. Cornides says after consulting for Roland Berger and completing her Master’s degree, she was looking for “an entrepreneurial industry where I could put data driven strategies into action”, when igaming came calling. “During a windsurfing holiday in Tarifa, I met Gibraltar-based industry professionals and my interest was piqued,” she explains. Reflecting on her recent promotion, she says: “My sole focus is to continue our stellar track record, outperform targets and further grow and solidify our market position.” Her new role gives her control of the UK’s biggest bingo brand, overseeing the entire Jackpotjoy portfolio across all European markets, and consequently control of the majority of group revenue and profits. Cornides says the broad remit of her position and the fast-paced, competitive nature of our industry is part of what appeals to her most about her job. Her advice for women hoping to replicate her success in the industry is to “trust in your capabilities and surround yourself with supportive people who believe in you; both professionally and personally”. With that foundation to work from, she adds that you are then able “to set ambitious goals, deliver your best and enjoy what you do”.

Kostandina Zafirovska, CEO, BtoBet

Zafirovska has been at the helm of Malta-based sportsbook and gaming platform BtoBet since January 2017, having served the previous two years as the company’ chief operating officer. She has more than 17 years of experience in computer science engineering. Alongside heading up BtoBet Zafirovska is on the executive board of Swedish software consultancy Seavus. She rose through the organisation, heading up several departments on the way, and assisted high-proficlients from various industries including insurance and finance. Her specialty has been designing and developing IT software products aimed at improving customer experience and simplicity of use. One of the projects she started working on almost fiyears ago was the development of the gaming and sports betting platforms that now constitute what she describes as “the backbone” of BtoBet. As such, she has seen the firm rise right through from its inception. Having overseen the launch and growth of BtoBet in a highly competitive market, she says her next challenge is “to influence the gaming community to embrace ever more the concept of advanced technology, and to recognize the value that this same technology has in terms of operational results”. One igaming exec described Zafirovska as “funny and charming” but “one of the most commercially shrewd and determined people you’ ever meet”, while the judges saw her as the driving force behind a “technology challenger platform” and “making inroads in new markets”. This year alone BtoBet has articulated plans to expand in Italy and Peru. Asked what she would say to other women looking to excel in igaming she said: “Be confident, grasp every opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise in the field, and base your action on wisdom and integrity.”

Lydia Barbara, Head of Innovation Strategy, Microgaming

Barbara entered the industry through poker, studying and playing the game long enough to, in her own words, become “good enough to make a living out of”. In 2009 she joined Microgaming as a poker manager before moving up to head the team eight months later. She then occupied positions as head of network games and head of Microgaming’ in-house marketing consultancy Pegasus Gaming Solutions before taking the helm of the supplier’ innovation unit in January 2017. Having earned her stripes climbing the ladder at Microgaming, Barbara turned her attention to innovation, an area where she has exercised particular influence over the past 18 months. Nominations highlighted her “strong entrepreneurial spirit and creative influence”, pointing to the 2016 launch of her brainchild, innovation unit the Ideas Factory. The initiative is a six-month contest in which staff submit their best ideas to a panel of 20 committee members, before 13 senior managers decide which will go live. Three years into spearheading the project, Barbara has seen it expand internationally and pick up two industry awards. “But the most rewarding thing is being able to see the passion and dedication from staff, it’ humbling and inspiring,” she says. Using the Ideas Factory software and processes, Barbara’ next challenge is a slight departure. Working with a group of Isle of Man technologists, she is launching a yearlong contest to help solve the plastics pollution problem on the island. Asked what her advice would be for women looking to succeed in igaming, she says: “My advice for women would probably be the same as for men. Work hard, be professional and supportive of others, and don’ ever hesitate to put your hand up for new opportunities.”

Jan Jones Blackhurst, EVP public policy and corporate responsibility, Caesars

Not only has Blackhurst been leading change from inside Caesars since the launch of Caesars Interactive in 1999, she was Las Vegas’ first female mayor. Her achievements to date include increasing the diversity of Caesar’s workforce so that 41% of management positions are held by women and 57% of employees are from diverse backgrounds. Caesars Entertainment has earned a 100% perfect score in the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index for 10 consecutive years under Blackhurst’s watchful eye. Blackhurst continues to advocate for equality and responsible gambling initiatives across the industry, with her work setting a high benchmark in corporate social responsibility. “I see my role as eliminating barriers,” she says, “whether through helping younger colleagues find their career path, supporting access to education, or ensuring every guest feels welcome. For me, my job is all about people.” She is a true believer that Caesars, and any other business, will only meet its potential by harnessing the breadth of experience offered by a truly diverse workface. “Anyone who thinks going into the next millennium that we can manage these large businesses without a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy in place is missing the opportunity to really be successful,” she explains. Asked for some words of wisdom for other women aspiring to success in the industry she said: “My advice, which I’d offer equally to both men and women, is to remember that ultimately leadership is about three things. One, take risks – do not be afraid to use your voice, even if there’s a consequence, because often the issue is more important than the outcome. Two, build consensus and align common interests. And three, it’s about inspiration. If you really believe in something and are passionate about it, you can instil that enthusiasm into your organisation and your colleagues.”

Tracy Damestani, CEO, National Casino Forum

As chief executive of the National Casino Forum (NCF), a trade association for land-based casinos in the UK, Damestani is a slight departure from our core igaming remit. However, she claims her place on this year’s most influential list by virtue of her vociferous support of the diversity and inclusion agenda and her work with the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling. Damestini has been in gambling since 2004 when she joined the NCF as a project manager from HSBC. She has been chief executive of the organisation since 2009. Following controversy over the representation of women in the industry earlier this year, Damestani told The Guardian the best way to challenge stereotypes and change perceptions would be to bring more women into senior positions. Her reaction followed the NCF’s 2017 initiative to encourage casino operators to bring more women into the boardroom. “I know many operators are keen to encourage women onto their boards,” she said, talking about the project last year. “I hope that the workshops I am devising with the Portas Institute will be the catalyst for change. I’d love to see the casino sector in the vanguard of reform within the gaming industry, setting an example that others follow.” Damestani has expressed a keen desire to see “women spearheading change” in the industry and, while her focus in on land-based businesses, the precedent has obvious repercussions across the online world. “We don’t want to look like an all-male industry at a senior level, nor do we want to confine women to ‘soft’ roles, such as HR and marketing. Women are leading in prominent roles across the private and public sectors and we should lead the way for our industry,” she said last year. We couldn’t agree more

The judges

Stephen Carter is editorial director across the iGaming Business stable of magazines and websites. He has more than 10 years’ experience working for a variety of igaming sector publications and affiliate websites, including a stint as deputy editor at EGR before going on to join iGB as editor in 2014./h3> Kelly Kehn is co-founder of the All-in Diversity Initiative, which advocates for a data-driven approach to improving inclusion in gaming. Since entering the industry in 2004, Kehn has held leadership roles in marketing, operations, management and sales. She won the Women in Gaming Award for Leader of the Year in 2016.

Christina Thakor-Rankin is the other half of All-in Diversity and runs a consultancy business. Her career in the industry spans 25 years and the whole betting and gambling ecosystem, including land-based, online and mobile gaming. She firmly believes that diversity and inclusion are critical to success in business.

Helen Walton is founder and marketing director at gaming software company Gamevy. A relative newcomer to igaming, she brings with her a wealth of experience from journalism, marketing and education. She believes the corporate definition of ‘experience’ is limiting and unrelated to the core skills of analysing problems, building solutions and managing people.

Andrew Bulloss is a partner at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson and has been placing directors, senior executives, C-level and non-executive directors in the international gaming and gambling industries for a decade. Prior to joining Odgers, he spent eight years leading recruitment in the technology/online, consumer goods and financial services industries in the UK and Europe.