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It’s no surprise that gambling is a male-dominated sport. Walk into any casino, and statistically speaking, it’s likely that 86% of the gamblers will be male. In Las Vegas, women weren’t even allowed to deal cards until 1971, and one of the first female craps dealers recalls her casino bosses telling her that “bending over the game would ruin your ovaries.”
While it’s not unusual to see women dealing cards and operating the tables these days, it’s still rare to see them actually running the whole place. And when it comes to Black women executives in the casino industry, the numbers are even slimmer. Call it the gambling glass ceiling.
But one woman is breaking major barriers in gaming: Melonie Johnson, a trailblazer who is one of only a handful of Black leaders in the casino space. In 2020, just as Covid-19 was battering the travel industry, Johnson took over as president and COO of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, making history by becoming the first Black woman to run an Atlantic City casino.
Melonie Johnson, president and COO of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, is breaking … [+] boundaries in gambling.
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
Since reopening Borgata’s doors last summer, Johnson has guided the property through the pandemic by implementing all-new health and safety regulations, creating gaming and sports betting protocols and developing a robust dining plan that included the return of celebrity chef favorites such as Bobby Flay Steak, Angeline by Michael Symon and Izakaya by Michael Schulso.
She has also been an inspiration to other women. Not long after Johnson was appointed president of Borgata, Jacqueline Grace was named senior vice president and general manager at Tropicana, becoming the second Black woman in charge of an Atlantic City casino.
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After completing her first 100 (or so) days in office, we caught up with Johnson to find out how this visionary leader is navigating the Covid crisis, what it’s like to be a Black woman crushing it in a white male-dominated field and what her advice is to other young women who want to make it big in gaming.
How I Got My Start: I started my career in the banking industry, then left and worked for an oil and gas company that ended up filing for chapter 7. I was young and I really thought I would retire from that company. Silly me. Everyone was saying, “Before you retire, you’ll probably have another eight to ten jobs.” And I said, “No way—I’ve been at this company for six years and this is a dream job.” But the rug was pulled from underneath all of us. So I found myself on the job market and my director at that time had a business card for the vice president of human resources for Harrah’s Entertainment in New Orleans. At that time, the state of Louisiana had just awarded the only land-based casino license that was non-tribal to Harrah’s.
Fake It Till You Make It: I sent my resume in and got a call for an interview for a financial analyst position. But when I went to the company, they were interviewing me for the manager of financial accounting and reporting. I just pretended like I was there to interview for the manager’s job. I was scared, but I said to myself, “Failure’s not an option. If I get this job, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.” Fortunately, I got the job.
Ask for Help: When I was hired into that role, I asked to be partnered with the best directors of finance within the organization. What I didn’t know, they were willing to teach me. That started my career in the gaming industry.
The exterior of Atlantic City’s Borgata Casino & Spa and its sister hotel, the Water Club.
BORGATA HOTEL CASINO & SPA
The Appeal of Gaming: After working in the banking industry and oil and gas, the gaming industry was mesmerizing. I think it’s sexy. I think it’s entertaining. The one constant is change. If I’m sitting in my office, I can leave and walk the gaming floor—and it feels like I left work. We’ve got entertainment, we’ve got gaming, we’ve got the hotel aspect, we’ve got food and beverage, we’ve got a spa. There’s just so much to this industry and there’s never a dull moment—never. It’s intoxicating for me.
Making My Way to Borgata: Before this, I was with MGM National Harbor in Maryland and the company restructured and reorganized. I got a call asking me if I would come to Borgata. I started right in the middle of Covid. It was a new adventure and I was nervous. This was a new environment, working under different safety protocols, trying to ensure that everyone is safe and shoring up the business while it was closed.
What Attracted Me to This Place: I’m partial to a green state—not the desert. And I love the beach. Southern Jersey is just beautiful, with the beachfronts, the amenities, the great restaurants. Plus, one of the luxuries is that we’re driving distance from Philadelphia and New York. So customers who don’t want to get on a plane but want a quick getaway can drive to Borgata and spend two, three, four days and not have to leave because we’ve got the hotel, we’ve got great food, a spa, an outdoor beer garden, bars, poker, nightlife. There’s so much to do at this property—it’s a fully integrated resort.
Staying Safe: The biggest thing that we’ve done in order to open safely was the Seven-Point Safety Plan, which was created with scientists and medical experts. We wanted to go above and beyond what the CDC or the state of New Jersey required. We went as far as building custom hand-washing stations on the floor, along with strategically placed hand-sanitizing stations. Upon entry to the casino, there’s thermal screening that checks your temperature. We’ve got a group of people that just go through the casino floor, sanitizing high-touch points. We practice social distancing and stay under the 25% occupancy rule. With our HVAC system, we’re constantly exchanging the air on our gaming floor with outdoor air—so we’ve got clean air, which is a plus. We’ve got polycarbonate barriers on our table games. And to use a blackjack table as an example: When a customer leaves, the team has to sanitize that position and the chair. Masks are also required, and if a customer comes to the property without a mask, we provide a mask free of charge. We’re doing everything humanly possible to ensure the safety of our employees and our guests.
Rising to the Challenge: This is probably the biggest challenge that I have had in my career, but I find it rewarding. My solution? Listen—more than I’ve ever listened in my life. That was the first thing. There’s a lot of knowledge at this property there. The workforce is fantastic. The average person has probably been here 15-plus years.
Borgata’s Chihuly artwork and slot machines.
Borgata Hotel & Casino
What It’s Like to be a Black Woman in a White Male-Dominated Field: Earlier on in my career, I was the only Black person working in those jobs. And it prepared me for where I am today. This is not the first senior role that I’ve had. When I worked for a competitor in Illinois, I was the interim general manager and CFO, then I transferred to another company and I was the assistant general manager. When I went to Mississippi to work for MGM Resorts International, I was the first Black person in Tunica, Mississippi that ever held the title of president of a casino. So that was history making for me. And then the company transferred me to MGM National Harbor, and I was the first Black woman in Maryland to be a property president. Coming to Borgata, I just happened to be a woman who is an American who happens to be Black. So it doesn’t have that same kind of effect. This is what I do. And I don’t look at myself as a Black woman or even a woman coming in here. I look at this as an opportunity for a talented, skilled individual that’s competent to hold this position.
Advice To Other Women: Number one, you’ve got to have the skill set and you’ve got to have the foundation. You’ve got to establish relationships because you’ve got to have someone that’s going to support you. Don’t allow people to tell you what you can and cannot do. What makes me more competitive and strong is when I’m told what I can’t do. That just fires me up and gets my juices flowing. To be in this industry you have to be competitive by nature.
In the swim at Borgata.
How Covid Has Made Me a Stronger Leader: Patience is a virtue. And empathy as well. I have evolved into a different personality, a different human being, a different professional. We had to furlough hundreds of our employees, and I’m really proud to say that I work for a company that has an employee emergency grant fund—we raised over $11 million to help our employees. And that was from entertainers that have performed at an MGM property to executives who contributed to the emergency grant fund. Employees could fill out the grant application to pay their rent, a car note, buy groceries, gas, medical bills.
Best Advice I Ever Got: Be patient. And I’m teaching this to millennials right now because the new group of employees that are coming out of college, in a year or two, they’re looking to be a vice-president and that doesn’t always happen. I was taught that you’ve got to be patient because the workforce is a pyramid. The vast majority of the jobs are at the bottom of that pyramid. And as you climb up the top of that pyramid, there are fewer jobs. So once you are at the very, very top, it’s going to be a challenge to get there. You can get there, but it may not happen in the timeframe that you would like. And I truly believe that when you go into the workforce, you are not going to become proficient in 12 months or 18 months. It takes time. You’ve got to learn and you’ve got to learn from different people. You’ve got to have the failures and you’ve got to learn how to recover with style. All of that comes with time. It’s part of that evolutionary journey. There’s not a light switch that you click on and you immediately have this knowledge.
Worst Advice: At a previous job, someone told me that if I was looking to move up in my career, that I may want to look outside that company. I was shocked because I thought I was on a trajectory to move up. It wasn’t mean and it wasn’t done maliciously, but it got my juices flowing. And the competitiveness in me came out. So I found a head hunter and I found another job and left. And that’s one of the reasons why I am where I am today. So the worst advice was the best.
Update 2/1/2021: After this story was published, details were added about Tropicana’s appointment of Jacqueline Grace—the second Black woman in charge of an Atlantic City casino.
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