Leader Interview: Jacqueline Grace


Leader Interview: Jacqueline Grace,

Senior Vice President & General Manager Tropicana Atlantic City


Jane Bokunewicz (JB): Hello everyone, I’m Jane Bokunewicz, the Faculty Director of LIGHT and I’m joined today by Jacqueline Grace who is the Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City. Thank you, Jackie for agreeing to speak with me today about your background.

Jacqueline was named General Manager of the Tropicana, which is part of Caesars Entertainment, in September of 2020.

Jacqueline Grace

Jacqueline Grace, Senior Vice President & General Manager Tropicana Atlantic City

I'm going to start, I have a few questions to learn more about your background, and I’ll start with a broad one - Who is Jacqueline Grace?

Jacqueline Grace (JG): Thank you again for having me, I am excited to do this, so I appreciate the opportunity.

As far as who is Jacqueline Grace, I think there are many ways to answer that question. I’m a mom, wife, and daughter. At the moment I’m somewhat of an absentee friend, god bless friends who are super understanding. But I’m also a purpose-driven leader who is really passionate about teaching, influencing and inspiring others to reach their fullest potential. I'm committed to serving others and that really is the reason why I do what I do.  I’m also a writer, traveler and amateur fitness enthusiast.  All those things are in my head at the moment because I have not made a lot of time to do any of those things lately, but I’d say all of that stuff makes me who I am.

JB: Well, that's great. That explains why you are such a good friend and partner to Stockton University, so thank you.

So, what were the highlights of your career, which led you to become Senior Vice President and General Manager at the Tropicana?

JG: I'll take you briefly through my career because it's a bit varied, and when most people hear my background, they think how the heck did you become a general manager of a casino.

Academically, I majored in electrical and computer engineering in undergrad at Stony Brook University. I wanted to understand, at the time I was focused on figuring out, how do you build computers. I like computer programming, but I was really interested in understanding how you build the darn things. And so that's why I went off and studied electrical (enginnering) and computer games.

While I was an undergrad, I was also really active on campus and, in particular, I held leadership roles, with The National Society of Black Engineers. Throughout high school, as well as college I understood that I gravitated towards leadership and anything that involves organizing – people, processes, things, events etc.  ... gathering a bunch of people to achieve a common goal.

When it was time to graduate from Stony Brook, I had two opportunities. I had an opportunity to join a traditional engineering firm, and an opportunity to work on Wall Street.  I chose the latter because I thought that would be a great way for me to combine both the technical and engineering skills that I learned and develop in undergrad, as well as leverage the leadership skills that I honed and what I enjoyed, bringing those two things together.

That was probably the first career decision that led to my somewhat diverse and varied career.

I worked on Wall Street for about nine years. I spent the first six years in IT, in various project management/program management roles supporting internal software development, groups developing applications for the business.  Then I made my second pivot, although that would be my first career transition.

I transitioned from technology into diversity and inclusion. I was incredibly passionate about diversity and ways to attract and retain women and underrepresented minorities into technology and then into financial services in general. I transitioned into diversity and helped to do just that, build a diversity and inclusion practice for the corporate groups.

I did that for about three years and then went off to business school. It was always a goal of mine to get my MBA. I value education. I believe, education, really is a way to open doors. I went to the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and obtained my MBA.

When I decided to go to business school, I said I was going to do two things. I was either going to pursue a career in hospitality or was going to do something in the entrepreneurial space. I explored both while I was in business school but ended up, obviously, coming down the hospitality path.

For me, as I looked at all of my career transitions, all of those things moved me closer and closer to the core of my work being about people and how I can serve people and impact their lives in some way or another. Hospitality is just that in my mind, a giant people business. We're serving our team members; we're serving our guests.

That is how I then transitioned into the industry. I started here in Atlantic City, worked for Caesars Entertainment, starting at Bally's, and then I moved around the region - Bally’s to Showboat and then to a regional role and held different roles  - slot analytics, marketing and then human resources. I did that for about four years and then I left the market.

I stayed with Caesars Entertainment, left the market and went down to our property in Maryland, the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, shortly after they opened as the head of HR there. Shortly after that I then transitioned to our property outside of Philadelphia, in Chester Pennsylvania, Harrah’s Philadelphia, and I went there as the Assistant General Manager. Then I went back to Baltimore as the Assistant General Manager because that opportunity opened up and I felt like my work wasn't quite done.

Baltimore is a great city, and I was really passionate about the work that the property did in the city of Baltimore – the impact that we were having not only in our team members’ lives, but in the greater city. I jumped at an opportunity to return to Baltimore and then after being there for a little over three years I had the opportunity to return to Atlantic City as the General Manager here at the Tropicana.

JB: That is inspirational on so many levels, first of all the technical background for a woman and then shifting to HR. HR people sometimes have a hard time advancing to the top levels of management and you did all that. What a great inspiration.

JG: I tell people, quite frankly, that my HR background was really instrumental. When I jumped into HR here in Atlantic City, the role was employee and labor relations for the city, so it was all four properties at the time for Caesars Entertainment I was thrown into it essentially, it's a great way to really learn about the business. Whether it is understanding, some of the challenges that employees have and how to address and mitigate those or thinking about employee engagement and what we can do as an organization to ensure that our employees, our team members, feel valued and appreciated and respected. Because if they do, then that's when they feel like they can bring their whole selves to work. That's where discretionary effort comes from. As a leader that's what you want, you want folks who feel incredibly motivated, because then they're going to go above and beyond to get the job done to take care of our customers, ensure we have excellent guest service.

Working in HR really gave me a foundation for the business, particularly the labor relations side. It was a great way to really understand the business and how we operate it – what we needed to do to partner with the unions in order for all of us to be successful.

JB: So, you've been in your new job for about a year, what would you consider your greatest current challenges and successes?

JG: I think they can be one in the same. I started at the property in September, by the way my one-year anniversary was last week, which was only a short – or was probably for the team a long – two or three months after we reopened from the closures.

I'd say, one of the greatest challenges during my time here was helping the team navigate through the ebbs and flows of the pandemic. There were so many changes, as you know, so much uncertainty, new health and safety protocols, which the team did a fantastic job implementing and being consistent with. That was a new part of their job, health and safety protocols and doing all that we can to ensure we keep our guests and team members safe. We were operating in a different environment, which none of us were really used to, and we needed to change how we operated. Change is tough for everybody.

However, I think that navigating the pandemic was also one of our biggest successes, because not only did we do that and do that effectively, but, I think, on the other side of it now – we are still in the middle of it; don’t get me wrong - what I found is that the team has been incredibly resilient.

We have been really focusing on rewarding and recognizing our team members for their resiliency through that. And then we've also demonstrated that we can operate the business in a way that's even more effective and efficient – because we had to.

All of that has actually helped with the performance of the business as well, so I take that as my greatest challenge as well as success.

JB: Now, we've talked a lot about the past, so looking to the future. What is your vision for the future of Atlantic City and what will the key issues and trends be over the next few years?

JG: I'll answer this question in two parts.  

My vision is that we continue to evolve and truly be a world class resort town that has something for everyone. For the longest time there's been lots of talk about what are the additional amenities that Atlantic City needs to help it to grow and continue to grow and attract more people to the city.

I believe that there's something to be said for having something for everyone – for families who may want to come to the city, for guests who are really excited about non-gaming amenities whether it be shows, nightlife, restaurants, etc. Having a really robust non-gaming amenity offering and then, also world class gaming offerings. I think if we all as an industry continue to invest in those things, I truly think that's part of the vision for the city – as far as the industry is concerned.

More importantly, as I think about the city itself, my vision would be continued investment into the infrastructure, the resources and the services to truly support the city, and the residents.

I think those two things combined really are key to the future of the city.

JB: What role do you see Tropicana playing in the future?

JG:  Here at Tropicana, we have a commitment to service, serving our team members to ensure that we're building a culture where people are proud to say they work here, serving our guests, to ensure that they have a memorable experience and they return and bring a friend with them when they come and, most importantly, serving our community.

And it really is the latter part that I think answers the question as far as the role that Tropicana will play in the future. It's all those things combined.

If we continue to invest in our team members and we make Tropicana one of the best places to work in New Jersey, then that goes a long way for creating a workforce which again feels proud to be here and committed to the work that they're doing. Which will then, in turn, translate into us continuing to deliver excellent customer service and make the guest experience a memorable one. Then guests will be willing to return, that will help us grow the business, which benefits everybody.

And then there is the work we do in the community. Tropicana has done a fantastic job as a community partner and we're looking to elevate that even more. We work with a few key institutions in the city, not the least of which is the Boys and Girls Club. There are other institutions that we've supported, and we will continue to support, but you know, in my mind if we are true community partners, and we tap into the needs of the city and the residents of the city then I think that goes a long way with helping with what we talked about earlier, as far as the vision of the city.

JB: Being part of Stockton University we see a lot of emerging students graduating and they are the future leaders, hopefully of Atlantic City and other places around the world. What advice, do you have for those future leaders?

JG: There are two things that I would say.

One is to do the work. It sounds simple, but nothing replaces rolling up your sleeves, being intellectually curious and spending time doing the work.

What that means for students, for early career professionals, is reaching out to others who have done the things that you want to do; spending some time with them to understand how they got there.

There's no substitute for time, sometimes it takes time for you to grasp a certain subject matter or to get the experience that you're going to need to help elevate you to the next level. There are no shortcuts for that. Spend the time to do the work and gain the knowledge that you need, that's going to position you for any type of leadership role you want in the future.

The second, and I kind of alluded to this in the first one, is to truly understand the importance of mentorship and sponsorship. And I want to articulate, explain the difference between mentorship and sponsorship and why they're both important.

A mentor is someone who has done what you want to do, and who can help guide you along the way. They can answer your questions. They're safe people in a safe place where you can ask them the silly questions. They can give you advice all along the way, whether it's with your role or as you think about career transitions and decisions and things of that nature. Everyone should have a mentor. You may even have multiple mentors but spend the time in developing relationships with mentors who can guide you along the way.

And then everyone should have a sponsor or sponsors. A sponsor is someone within an organization, who has a seat at the table, who can help influence your career, help ensure that you are getting the opportunities that you need to advance.

Sometimes a mentor and a sponsor are one in the same, but sometimes they're different and it's important that everyone has both.

JB: Great distinction!

Thank you so much for your time Jackie. This was really a wonderful interview. I've learned so much, and I think anyone who sees this interview will really benefit a lot from this. So, thank you.

JG: No problem, thank you, I appreciate it and I enjoyed the opportunity.