Women in Business

Taking on the challenge: Bridges balances career and motherhood as casino executive

wib bridgesIf you’d asked Leeann Bridges 20 years ago what her ideal career would look like, she probably wouldn’t have told you she hoped to become a marketing executive at a casino. 

But here she is, 14 years into employment at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and 10 years into the marketing department, and Bridges, the casino’s vice president of marketing, couldn’t have more good things to say about her job. 

“I like that it’s very dynamic,” she said. “It’s not boring. There are new challenges every single day.”  

In her tenure at Harrah’s she’s been part of a master planning process. She’s been part of a casino expansion. She’s helped launch the Valley River Casino and Hotel in Murphy, which opened Sept. 28. And at 45, she’s likely to conquer many more mountains in the course of her career. 

“Did I ever think I would end up in marketing?” she said. “Absolutely not. But I had a mentor who saw something in me that I certainly didn’t see.”

She took the plunge, and that landed her here, head of a division of 130 people. 

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Rewind to the era of Y2K, and Bridges, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was pretty sure she’d left the Qualla Boundary for good. After earning her bachelor’s in anthropology from Western Carolina University, she moved to Raleigh to pursue a master’s of business administration from Meredith College, at the time believing that’s where she wanted to be. 

But then homesickness struck. She missed her family, and she missed the mountains. She finished the degree, but afterward she drove back west to take part in a job development program the EBCI had instituted for tribal members. That’s how she came to work at Harrah’s Cherokee, then just two years into its existence.  

She hasn’t regretted the move. From speaking with Bridges, it’s clear she believes in the mission of the casino — to provide jobs for people, especially Cherokee people — and is excited about the sheer breadth of marketing efforts she’s involved with, ranging from event promotions to mailers to media relations. 

It’s also clear that she appreciates business’ professional atmosphere.  

“We’re all on one hallway, so there’s a lot of yelling back and forth to each other about different ideas we may have, an upcoming event, an upcoming concert,” Bridges said. 

It’s congenial and collaborative. And according to Bridges, it’s also pretty equal-opportunity. When she first came to Harrah’s in 2001, most upper-level positions were held by men, but now it’s about a 50-50 split. She says she’s never felt demeaned or ostracized from leadership based on her gender.  

“One thing that I experienced was just a willingness to help by everyone, across the board,” she said. “For me it never felt like a very exclusive boys’ club at all.”

The influence of Cherokee culture might have something to do with that. Increasingly, enrolled members are taking on the casino’s highest-level positions, and because Cherokee is traditionally a matrilineal society, there’s a degree of inherent respect for female leaders.

“We all have big personalities,” Bridges said of the Cherokee women on the casino’s management team. “We all speak what’s on our minds. Perhaps those are traits that got us where we’re at, but being raised in an environment where girls are encouraged to speak up and you don’t have to stay in the background — it’s being raised by strong women. We have a lot of that in this community.” 

For Bridges, the main challenge of being a woman in professional leadership comes from the conflict between performance in the workplace and being a good mother to her 9-year-old son, a responsibility she takes seriously. 

“If I let it, it can get really out of balance, and I don’t want that to happen, but at the same time I want to give my child everything that I didn’t have,” she said. “For me that’s the what I struggle with the most because I don’t want to miss anything with my son, but sometimes I need to be here and I need to be focused on what is going on here at the casino.”

Though divorced, Bridges says she has the most ideal situation possible under those circumstances, as her son’s dad lives in town and is very involved in the parenting. Still, it’s hard, and she’s grateful to have a boss who’s supportive. 

“He was sick last week. I took a day off,” she said — “last week” entailing some of the final days before Harrah’s opened its new casino in Murphy, a jam-packed week in Bridges’ world. “Probably not the best day to take a day off, but that’s life.”

Bridges constantly amazes herself at what she’s able to juggle when it comes to career and motherhood, making it work in ways she would have thought impossible before becoming a parent. When you have to make it work, she said, you make it work. 

“You get it done,” she said. “And sometimes it’s really tough. But it’s very rewarding.”

Rewarding, she hopes, for her son as well as for herself. 

“I like projecting that strength and that determination for my son, and hopefully he’ll emulate that,” she said. “I want him to know you don’t get anything for free. You have to work hard for everything that you do. You have to take care of yourself.”

Taking care of others is also a mark of success. Over the years, Bridges has seen her management team shift and change, the people under her move up or move along toward goals of their own. When that happens, she counts it as an accomplishment — because, a decade ago, she was one of those workers in need of a mentor to show her the path to the top. 

“For me, that means I’ve done my job pretty well if I see people advance or go into new roles, whether it’s in my own area or somewhere else,” she said. 

“It’s great helping people get to where they want to be.”

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