Anika Howard is the inaugural President and CEO of WONDR NATION, the newest venture from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, and an interactive gaming company whose remit is to use emerging technologies “to create new and exciting experiences for players.” For those not in the know, the Mashantucket Pequots are an Algonquin people whose nation is located in southeastern Connecticut, near to where the Long Island Sound terminates and the Atlantic Ocean begins. Today, the people are best known as the owners and operators of Foxwoods Resort Casino, that behemoth of Northeast gaming that covers 9 million square feet and counts no fewer than six casinos on its grounds.
WONDR NATION is a canny move for the tribe. At the moment, Connecticut is one of the six states in the country which allows online casino. The tribal-state compact was structured so that there are effectively two online casinos. One license was granted to Foxwoods, which it operates with DraftKings (Mohegan Sun and FanDuel partner for the other one). With the online casino market only having been active since last year, this new WONDR NATION venture marks a bold step for the stakeholders to make a name for themselves in this incipient market.
Fortunately, the powers-at-be have chosen a worthy candidate to lead this effort. Over the last two decades, Anika Howard has shown an adeptness at being ahead of digital trends in the gaming industry. Coming of age in the fervency of digital revolution, she has been a driving force in the industry’s evolution into all things online.
Howard originally hails from New Orleans but spent a large part of her upbringing in Washington DC. While this is largely known as a company town, the presence of the Federal Government brings with it a lot of ancillary benefits, a fact that was not lost on her parents, who wanted to expose their children (Howard is the eldest of eight) to the multitudinous opportunities the city has to offer. Howard recalls: “From dance, music, working and taking educational programs at the Smithsonian, a random program at NASA to plan a mission to Mars in elementary school, performing arts and going to the theater… I was really fortunate to have these experiences that were a combination of art and technology. It shaped how I viewed the world and made me think differently.” Indeed, it was this combination of creativity and science that would define the course that Howard’s career was to take.
She left DC for Arizona State University, where she obtained an MBA and a Master’s in science and information technology. While at Arizona State, she had her first foray into the gaming industry, working at Harrah’s as a summer intern. She would eventually get hired.
Though gaming was not at the top of her list, her time at Harrah’s (which would eventually join forces with Caesars Entertainment) proved consequential. For one, Howard appreciated the leeway granted even its younger staff. Unlike other fields she had been considering in college, gaming gave her a much greater degree of autonomy. “They would give you projects,” she recalls. “They’d say, ‘Here’s a real-world problem to solve. Sink your teeth in.’”
That, though, is when she started noticing a significant technological lag in the industry. She had found the blueprint that would define her subsequent career. Howard was among the youngest at the company, and the world was changing very fast. The 1990s had seen the personal computer truly become part of everyday life. By the end of the millennium, the internet was connecting everything, and very few corners of society were left unaffected. True then as it has been since, the young were hipper to this change than the higher-ups, something which was glaringly obvious to Howard, who began to take advantage of this discrepancy in knowledge while at her first job at Harrah’s:
“When I got there, even as an intern, I saw immediately that there was a big gap. These gaming companies had a conservative approach. I thought, why aren’t people playing online? What are some of the things we could do? Soon, I was very interested in the gaming industry and in how technology could transform it.” Additionally, in gaming she saw a place for her to lead this revolution. While at school she had been studying robotics and computer engineering and was setting up for a life in the backend of where the internet was happening, she saw in gaming the opportunity to be “creating what this can be” – to be leading from the front.
She was sent back to New Orleans, to launch the website of Harrah’s New Orleans, one of the biggest land-based projects of the decade. Though this was an impressive beginning for someone straight of college, she was destined for an even higher place at the company after her ideas – “spoken with all the arrogance of youth” – got in the ears of the right executive at what had in 2005 been renamed Caesars Entertainment. She was called back to Vegas for an interview and in short order became Caesars’ first interactive employee.
“They hired me as the lead for interactive and I was tasked with consolidating all of their web. In hindsight, it was an insane opportunity to have.”
At that time, a major company like Caesars Entertainment would have an online presence more resemblent of a disorganized mess than anything unified and coherent. Each property would have its own website. Howard’s vision was to bring this all together into a cohesive platform. This was something easier said than done. It’s been noted that the gambling industry is instinctively conservative, and, indeed, the manager of each property was protective of its online presence. “There was pushback,” says Howard, “because casinos thought that it would be taking away their individuality by wanting to bring it all under one umbrella.”
In order to convince casino managers that it would be to their benefit, Howard had to do the work of a seasoned politician (the Atlantic City bosses were especially difficult to convince). She travelled to every property owned by Caesars and sat down with its leaders, slowly educating these industry veterans that the new way, represented in her youthful bearing, was the way of the future and (ultimately it was this that sealed the deal) to greater profitability.It wasn’t just modernizing the website. Areas like rewards programs had to go digital too. Casino bosses were worried that they would lose the ability to track preferred customers. But they were willing to change their minds, to try her approach, after she assured them: “Whatever we do, we’re putting the player first, we protect the revenue, and we make sure that all of your inputs are included.” Her methods were adopted with great success, and her model became one that the rest of the industry would follow.
After nearly eight years at Caesars, she had a six year stint at IGT, where she worked more in the realm of iGaming. Then, in 2018, she came to Foxwoods. The whole time, she was breaking the mold. By being at the vanguard of new technologies in an era completely upended by technological innovation, it was impossible that there was a clear trajectory for her. She explains: “One thing I can say about my career is that, because it was so new, there was not a path. Essentially, I created that throughout. Even up until this position today, one of the things that has been amazing, but also incredibly challenging for me, is that I’ve never stepped into a pre-existing position. Every position I’ve had has either been designed by me, created for me, or created because this was the next path that we were forging ahead. While the industry was changing and evolving, so was my career to keep pace with it.” Now she has made it to the level of CEO. The company she leads, WONDR NATION, exists in a market that is sure to experience stratospheric growth in the coming years as the popularity of online casinos grows and more states begin allowing it (the New York State government, for instance, is due to introduce legislation legalizing iGaming in its next session). Howard, though, is always looking ahead. Just as she was given an outsized role when starting out, she appreciates the invaluable perspective that youth offers and makes an effort to development creative partnerships with local institutions such as New Haven University. “We need to bring more young people into the industry,” she says. And what major initiatives might we expect out of WONDR NATION and Foxwoods? “I think esports has a lot of potential.”