Since stepping into the role of chief information officer at Gila River Resorts & Casinos, Robin Villareal has found herself in the spotlight like never before. The unexpected attention created an added challenge for her to overcome on top of adapting to a new role: imposter syndrome.
“I couldn’t help wondering why people wanted to come speak to me,” Villareal admits. Despite these misgivings, she pushed herself to attend a women’s leadership conference that ended up shifting her perspective. “I decided just to be myself,” she says of the event. “I walked in and said good morning to everybody, and I ended up feeling so excited and empowered. I realized that every single one of us had a story of coming in and coming up, and it was my time to come up.”
Since that conference, Villareal has made it a point to empower the women around her, many of whom she knows might struggle with their confidence like she once did. She seeks, too, to support her Gila River Indian Community through her efforts as CIO at the Community-owned Gila Resorts & Casinos, which is set to open its fourth Arizona property, SanTan Mountain Casino, in late 2023 (at time of speaking).
When she first joined the casino in 1995, Villareal did not have any aspirations in the IT space. She started as a beverage server, then worked briefly as secretary to the executive chef—until a call to the IT desk for help resolving a computer issue inspired the desk to offer her a technician role.
“I told them I didn’t know anything about computers, and they said I knew more than I thought I did,” she recalls. “My first couple of days there, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision because I couldn’t understand the terminology. But I realized that I actually really like being challenged.”
Villareal honed her skill set and expertise by taking on a series of interim roles in the IT department, which encompasses the functional areas of infrastructure, operations, project management, and cybersecurity. By the time the CIO position opened up a few years ago, she believed in her ability to rise to the occasion—and convinced Gila River to give her a chance to prove herself.
First and foremost, Villareal views the title of CIO as a call to connect with her amazing—and amazingly knowledgeable—team members. “I value getting to know my team so I can be an ambassador for the IT department,” she says. “It’s about understanding the executive team’s high-level vision or dream, interpreting it, and bringing it back down to my team so they know where we’re headed and what we can do as a department to pave that path forward for the dreamers. I always say that we’re the dream makers.”
Recently, the dream at Gila River has revolved around the development of the new SanTan site. Villareal cites an immersive glass building exterior, auto-leveling audio on the casino floor, and on-demand food and beverage services as just a few of the innovations the project entails from an IT perspective.
“We’re also going to have the biggest sportsbook in Arizona once this property opens,” she adds. “It’s going to be a real ‘wow’ factor. We’re doing anything and everything we can think of to create a truly great experience for our guests.”
Beyond playing active parts in the SanTan project as well as IT upgrades across Gila River’s existing properties, Villareal took the initiative to kickstart a leadership conference for the women of the organization, based on the transformative effect of the conference she herself had attended.
“Our first conference, in August 2022, was such a huge success. I’ve come across several ladies who asserted themselves from their previous positions into upper management roles because the conference gave them the confidence to try,” she says.
Many others have found confidence in Villareal’s guidance as well. “Robin’s many accomplishments are an inspiration. Her leadership and ongoing commitment to tribal sovereignty and sustainability for her community are outstanding,” say Toni Martinez and Sean Sauter, VPs of sales at IGT. “Thank you, Robin, for all you do. We are thrilled to celebrate you!”
But a pivotal moment in continuing to grow Villareal’s own confidence in herself came when she spoke to a fellow female attendee of an awards luncheon last year. “I was having trouble because, culturally, we’re not supposed to be putting ourselves outside the community or being boastful,” Villareal explains. “She told me that when you’re in a leadership role, you carry these seeds with you, and you have to walk this path and plant those seeds so the people behind you can come through and enjoy the flowers.”
The conversation resonated deeply with Villareal, who reassessed her responsibility to her team and to the Gila River Indian Community as a result. She now feels honored to contribute to securing the Community’s future, especially as the first—but hopefully not the last—Community member to sit as CIO. “Having a succession plan is one of my priorities,” she says. “I emphasize to all of my team members that this place needs to be here for generations to come, so it can provide back to the state of Arizona and to our Community.”
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