Unlocking female entrepreneurship in the gambling industry

Abby Rachel Cosgrave of SafeComply urges the sector to open up more opportunities for female founders

Recent discussions around the Global Gaming Awards and the desperate lack of diversity represented in the 52-strong senior executive and founder judging panel (with 51 of them being male) has fairly highlighted difficulties with diversity within gaming.

As a female working in the gaming industry, I have been both vocal about this panel and its publication, and vocal about specific personal examples where I have felt a sense of exclusion based on my gender. That said, it is an industry where hard work, expertise and love for the product is greatly valued and rewarded, irrespective of gender. Essentially, working in gambling as a female can be described as a main course of opportunity with a small side of exclusion and unfairness. If you can stomach the side, the main course is there for the taking.

Despite expensive diversity and inclusion programmes being thankfully seen across many operators, the publication of this panel and the level of involvement in it across the industry illustrates that work needs to be done within the industry to support and increase the female voice.

We are seeing increasing numbers of women in senior roles across the industry, including C-level management. Fantastic women are being valued and promoted as employees but one of the key areas where we are failing to see women develop or take the leap of faith is into that of founder and entrepreneur. Despite being able to find the same or similar investors or funds behind a number of male-founded gambling products, investment to female founders remains a rarity in the industry.

It’s not just gaming

Even with the well discussed Covid-related difficulties of 2020, the year saw a record amount of funding delivered into the technology sector in the CEE region. Despite this, a report from European Women in VC found that the amount of funding going to female founding teams in the same region dropped from a high of 4.1% in 2018 to just 1% in 2020. To highlight what that figure means in real terms, just 13% of CEE start-ups are founded by women.

Gambling specifics

Inherited from a long history of land-based gambling, igaming is a male-dominated product. It is largely created by men for men. Stigmas readily associated with the product include illegality of service, addiction, problematic gambling, match-fixing, affordability, corruption and crime, to name but a few.

The balance of creating and marketing a product to be enjoyable and to engage customers but to not incite problematic behaviours or attract money obtained from crime has proven a difficult one to maintain and the regulatory framework is therefore becoming increasingly restrictive. Marketing bans and restrictions, stake and wager limits, vertical prohibitions and increasing responsible gambling and anti-money laundering legislation are common in all jurisdictions.

“But that’s how we have always done it”

Despite regulatory direction to the contrary, innovation in the industry still largely focuses on creating a sticky experience to keep the player or their funds (and increasing amounts of them) in. Because of this focus within the product, a large compliance obligation (and spend) then falls to assess the nature and source of the funds and to ensure that the player can then control an experience that was always designed to stick.

Just because something has always been done a certain way, it doesn’t mean it is always the best way.

Can female founders hold the key to repositioning the gaming industry?

There is one recent and well publicised example of a female founder receiving funding: SharedPlay. A venture founded by Karolina Pelc, a prominent female figure widely acknowledged for her casino product and innovation expertise, SharedPlay received €1.1m for 25% of its shares from LeoVentures (part of the LeoVegas Group) earlier this year.

Interestingly, SharedPlay thinks outside of the box of the traditional online casino play seeking to create a social environment for players.

It could easily be argued that by enabling the space for women to have a voice and to create new experiences and investing in the same, online gambling could be innovated to a place where regulation may not necessarily need to continue to contract.

How can the industry create a space for female founders?

There are some standard responses to bridge the gender diversity and inclusion gaps in any industry, the narrative here largely falls around senior women helping other women, women mentoring other women, in creating funds by women for women and while this certainly has a place, it would ignore the specifics of this industry where the vast majority (if not all) investment comes from organisations largely ran or owned predominately by males and the vast majority of leaders are males.

Create founders: Operators and providers should start to invest in their entrepreneurial employees as more than employees. Creating the space for employees to come and pitch ideas for corporate investment and encouraging, enabling and supporting women, who it has been claimed are less likely to put themselves forward to pitch.

Assist in finding investment: Again, given that it is often argued that women are less likely to want to speak publicly, the numerous events and conference organisers targeting the gambling industry could also help by creating private or online pitch schemes which give access for women in the industry to its leading investors and entrepreneurs (which are often involved as the sponsors of such events).

Enable mentorship: I was lucky enough to have access to a leading male in the industry as a mentor. It is often thought that creating male to female mentorships can create an essence of patriarchism but my experience has been the opposite. In an industry where leadership is so inherently male, enabling an internal mentorship scheme at your organisation (or even industry wide) that gives driven females access to a leading mentor (whether male or not) could be beneficial to both parties. In my experience, the mentor, at times becomes the mentee which can help push the industry to a greater understanding from the top down.

Abby Rachel Cosgrave, SafeComply

Abby Rachel Cosgrave is a qualified solicitor and C-level executive who has been working in online gambling for seven years. She currently provides consultancy services in relation to legal and compliance requirements to a number of leading operators and companies targeting the gaming sector as providers via her company, SafeComply.

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