Trailblazers: Women leaders making their mark at GWCCA

Like the business side of sports and the landscape of national politics, women are also changing the fabric of public assembly facilities – and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) is a leading force.

According to the Atlanta-based Castell Project, a non-profit focused on increasing diversity in hospitality industry leadership, men are 10 times more likely to be promoted to an executive-level position in the hospitality industry than women.

But the Authority is bucking that trend with an executive team and administration that includes women in leadership positions while women also play key roles throughout the organization, including heading up the Business Office, Marketing and Communications, Sales, Client and Guest Services, Commercial Services, Security, and the GWCCA-managed Savannah Convention Center.

Best-selling author and speaker Bertice Berry contends that including women in leadership roles in the public assembly venue world is critical for the advancement of the industry.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, here’s a look at some of the trailblazing women making history – or herstory – on the GWCCA’s downtown Atlanta campus, sister properties, and business partnerships.

Micshon Anderson | Security Manager, Public Safety

Micshon Anderson routinely encounters some disbelief when GWCCA security officers introduce her as their boss.

“I get a lot of different reactions, some that are supportive and some that are, I guess I’d say, shocked to see me,” said Anderson, who heads up GWCCA Public Safety’s security division.

Anderson joined the Authority 13 years ago. She got her feet wet in the security industry with an internship at Phipps Plaza, then worked for Allied Security (now Allied Universal) at various Atlanta locales including Cox Enterprises, Fox Theatre, Scottish-Rite Hospital and several condo facilities followed by a stint managing the security of now-defunct Alltel Wireless’ two campuses in Arkansas.

She became homesick, left Arkansas and moved back to Atlanta, and called her former supervisor/mentor (also a woman) at Phipps Plaza, who had become director of security at the ritzy shopping center in Buckhead.

“She said, ‘do you want to be my assistant director’? I was like, yeah! I mean, yes ma’am,” recalled Anderson.

She worked there for eight years before deciding it was time for a change, and applied for an opening at the GWCCA, not knowing much about how security operations on a convention center campus worked.

For instance, she did not know that the GWCCA had its own in-house security (and police department) as well as working relationships with numerous contract security outfits.

“It just opened up a world I was not familiar with and I loved it,” she said. “Because I went from mall security, contract security and now a convention center security – I just felt I was opening myself up to learning new concepts about overall security – it’s not just one genre, it’s multiple. So I was fascinated with that.”

She feels she made the right impression on Authority leadership by bringing a customer-centric mindset to the table.

And the organization’s leadership made her job easier by supporting her decisions, on down to more subtle things, like introducing her as the security boss in client meetings. This is Ms. Anderson, she is the head of our security. She is in charge.

Early on in her Authority career, Anderson felt the team truly had her back when she hosted a Women in Security meeting at the GWCC, and she asked then-GWCCA Chief Operating Officer Khalil Johnson to speak at the gathering, and she asked other GWCCA executives to attend.

“They all came to my meeting. This was a little meeting, right, of maybe 20 women in the security field, but I had everyone there to support me three months into this position – I had that level of leadership there for this female security manager they’d just hired,” she said. “I will never forget having the strength of the support from the whole Authority.”

While changing the internal culture of the security department was a relatively smooth process, Anderson said, making traction in the traditionally male-dominated events industry takes a slow, steady hand.

“I understand that this industry has been this way quite some time where it is male-dominated,” said Anderson. “But, I am a gentle soul, right? I treat people like you would want to be treated.”

She goes into any conversation making sure she listens and understands the need of the client.

“I have forged a lot of great relationships based on me being a woman of my word. And I think I’ve probably gained respect because of that.”

Janet Arsenault | Sr. Director of Finance

Janet Arsenault feels that the playing field for women in the workplace is leveling, especially at the GWCCA.

I believe that it is just a matter of women taking advantage of those rights and pushing through any barriers that might arise,” said GWCCA’s Sr. Director of Finance.

“Within the administrative functions of GWCCA, we have had and currently have multiple women in high-level positions,” said Arsenault, who joined the Authority in 2012 as Director of Accounting for the Congress Center and Centennial Olympic Park.  “I believe our organization is extremely supportive of women’s career advancement and that is one of the many reasons I am proud to work here.”

When the Authority formally reorganized its business structure, she became the Sr. Director of Finance, overseeing the Accounting and Purchasing Departments, now housed under the Business Office umbrella.

She also directs the Authority’s budget process, rolling forecast, investments, profit and loss (P&L) reporting and has control of agency revenue and expenditures – basically, if it has anything to do with finances, she’s involved.

It’s an essential role for a state agency that turned a net operating profit of more than $8 million during the last fiscal year, and contributed more than $83 million in direct profit to the state of Georgia.

Overseeing a wide variety of professionals, from accountants to procurement officers to supply chain managers, Arsenault describes her leadership style as open and supportive. “My leadership style is to be involved and share my own stories so that others know more about me as a person,” she said. “I also ask questions to see how they are doing, which builds trust with the team.  I look to the team to provide input and ideas so they have ownership and accountability.  However, I am not afraid to provide feedback, with the ultimate goal of improvement and growth.”

During her time at the Authority, Arsenault has reported directly to two influential GWCCA leaders also featured in this story: former GWCCA CFO Sherrie Spinks and Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer LeMaster.

“Sherrie had been here at the Authority for 15 years when I started in July 2012.  She had many years of institutional knowledge and provided a lot of insight for me,” said Arsenault. “When I became the Senior Director of Finance, the Authority had just gone through a re-organization and my position began reporting to the Chief Administrative Officer.  That position is held by Jennifer LeMaster, who I consider a great mentor. She has taught me that it is important to always work towards a vision.  She has also taught me not to get caught up in the day-to-day, but rather keep your eye on the future.”

Yet Arsenault’s original mentor came from a familiar place – home.

“My first mentor was my mother,” she said.  “She was born in Germany and came to the U.S. after getting married to my dad while he was in the Army, stationed in Germany,” she said.  “My mother taught me the value of money and how to be a strong-minded female.” 

Setting aside time to celebrate the achievements of women throughout history is important to Arsenault.

“Women’s History Month is an opportunity for us to recognize all the hard work and impacts that women have made to the world as we know it,” she said.

Jennifer LeMaster | Chief Administrative Officer

Jennifer LeMaster got her first taste of serving the public while working the drive-thru window at McDonald’s when she was 16.

A humbling yet ultimately rewarding experience, it was the beginning of a customer service journey that led to the present where she occupies one of the most-powerful seats for one of Georgia’s key drivers of economic development – the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

As GWCCA’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), she is the only woman represented on the organization’s four-person Executive Committee.

With a background in collegiate athletics, LeMaster joined the Authority as Premium Seating Manager at the Georgia Dome, so she’s used to crashing the boys’ party.

Although sports, conventions and entertainment events have traditionally been male-dominated fields, LeMaster feels that the Authority operates in a space where capability is valued as much as experience, which helps level the playing field for women to advance within the organization.  It’s a direct result of the tone set by Executive Director Frank Poe and former Georgia Dome General Manager Carl Adkins.

“I’ve had two leaders, two direct supervisors while working for GWCCA over 13 years,” said LeMaster. “I’ve reported to Carl and I report to Frank. And they are very different stylistically obviously in their leadership approaches, and their working style and all that – but the thing that they have in common is that they’re both wired for performance. And they don’t look at people in terms of gender, or age – they both taught me to focus on outcomes. They wanted to know who are the workhorses, what are your capabilities, and the more you achieved the more they gave you.”

LeMaster’s own rise through the Authority ranks is a testament.

Prior to joining the Georgia Dome team in 2007 she worked for the University of Kentucky Athletics Association rising from unpaid intern to Director over nine years. In 2012 she was promoted to the GWCCA’s Director of Communications, a position she held until 2016 when she was promoted again to CAO.

As CAO, she is responsible for all of the organization’s centralized support functions that range from human resources to marketing and communications, supply chain and financial services, while she’s steering the Authority’s award-winning corporate culture, annual strategic planning, brand recognition and public affairs.

Leadership diversity is critical to GWCCA’s vision of being recognized as the No.1 convention, sports, and entertainment destination in the world.

“To me, getting the diverse leadership team in place at every level of the organization has been a strategic imperative, it’s not been an accident,” she said. “We have looked to intentionally add team members to our organization who would represent voices that weren’t already at the table. I’m proud of it, I’m proud that we have a team and a Board that supports us in those efforts. Voices from all different perspectives are considered in the decision-making which is the foundation of the collaborative and inclusive culture we desired.”

While the GWCCA has made many strides in bringing women’s voices into the decision-making process, LeMaster said the hospitality industry, and our society as a whole, still has some work to do – which is why it’s important to champion oft-overlooked successes via Women’s History Month.

“Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the contribution of women that have been marginalized in our traditional teaching of history. Certainly, women and minorities were left out of the stories that I was told at a younger age. Even biblical scripture has underscored the role that women played in expanding Christianity throughout the world in the First Century,” she said. “For me, it’s just a time of reflection to remind myself and others that, this is not a battle that’s been won in terms of equity. We’ve made a lot of progress but we still have a long way to go.”

LaTonia Ross | Commercial Services Manager, Products and Services

LaTonia Ross, an Authority employee for 21 years, has a passion for planning and people.

As the GWCCA’s Commercial Services Manager she oversees a team that is responsible for capturing commercial revenue from the products and services, such as utility services (electric, gas, pneumatic air, water) and building services equipment, offered by the Authority.

“I act as a liaison between the operating departments and my team just to ensure that we’re capturing all of the revenue for the events,” she said. “I’m also responsible for budgeting out for future events.”

She thrives on the interaction and engagement with customers, other Authority departments and her team. She has also developed a rapport with other convention facilities to get information about events that are new to the GWCCA campus.

“Being in this industry allows me to meet, teach, plan, serve, coach and create memorable experiences,” she said. “I have been afforded the opportunity to work amongst some of the greatest leaders during my time at the Authority who have sown some amazing seeds that have contributed to my professional development.”

Ross’ story is one of perseverance.

She started with the GWCCA as a part-time accounting tech, an assignment that lasted for three years. She then transitioned into a full-time position with the Engineering Department, serving as a Customer Service Representative. As the department evolved, she was promoted to Customer Service Coordinator overseeing a team of customer service representatives, and when the Authority instituted a formal reorganization, she was appointed to her current role as Commercial Services Manager.

“I put in the work and stayed diligent in my work and after several years I began to reap the benefits of it,” said Ross. “I think it all worked out the way it was supposed to.”

She’s also known for going to bat for the team she supervises, which incidentally is currently an all-female unit. “I’d like to think they’d describe me as compassionate, supportive and a true leader,” said Ross. “I will go to the ends of the earth for my team and they know that.”

Looking back to her first-ever paying job as a greeter at a PoFolks restaurant on Old National Highway in southern Fulton County, she recalls the lessons in customer service learned there that still resonate today. “Who would have ever thought that job was preparing me for a lifetime of smiles and creating compelling guest experiences?” Ross mused. “I learned there how your demeanor can affect the demeanor of others. Always be courteous and kind and you can actually change the whole situation.”

But behind that smile is dogged determination, a resolve to never back down, and she doesn’t mind upsetting the status quo.

“I’ve earned my position, I’ve earned my seat at the table as a female,” she said. “I am the person that says we’re going to think this through, we’re going to come up with a solution. I don’t care if we’re here all night.”

The trade show, meeting, and convention industries have traditionally been dominions of men, but Ross has a secret weapon.  “I am a female that thinks like a man,” said Ross.

Sherrie Spinks | General Manager, Savannah Convention Center

Sherrie Spinks is the first woman to serve as General Manager of the Savannah Convention Center, the sparkling 330,000-square-foot riverfront facility managed by the GWCCA.

“I only know of two other female GMs even in a hotel in Savannah,” said Spinks, who served as the Authority’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) prior to her current position in the Hostess City of the South. “But we are making changes and slowly being accepted and recognized for our efforts.”

Under Spinks’ leadership, the Savannah Convention Center has posted record numbers, with revenues increased by 100 percent and a 71 percent improvement in the bottom line. She was also instrumental in streamlining the facility’s name, formerly known as the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center, and instituting a new logo and color scheme to update the facility’s look.

Change is hard, especially in a town such as Savannah that is steeped in historical tradition, but Spinks has enjoyed the full backing of the Authority in her decision-making.

“I think the Authority has certainly shown that it is supportive of women in leadership positions.  It took a while and a lot of proving of ourselves in the early years but now women are supported in leadership positions,” said Spinks. “We get the job done!”

After joining the Authority as Controller in 1997, Spinks relied on the mentoring of two of the organization’s most-influential women to show her the ropes. “I’ve had several mentors but the two most impactful ones in this career have been Evelyn Mason and Sue DeCastro.  Evelyn Mason was the first Controller at GWCCA and Sue DeCastro was the first Legislative/Admin Manager,” said Spinks, who worked primarily for global events company I&D Group (now Nth Degree) prior to the Authority.  “Both Evelyn and Sue helped me understand state government and government processes as it related to GWCCA.  They introduced me to many helpful and resourceful leaders in state government and businesses that support GWCCA.”

A few years down the line, Spinks title changed to CFO and with that change came greater responsibility. “I took over leadership responsibilities for Human Resources, and later handled the IT/telecom contract, (GWCC’s) gift shop, and all insurance claims,” she said.

Bringing the accomplishments of women to light during Women’s History Month is important to Spinks. “It is a time to learn and celebrate women and their contributions to success in the world,” she said.  “There are so many amazing women throughout history that weren’t even acknowledged for their contributions until recently. It is a shame and therefore important to finally tell their stories.”

Her story began in DeKalb County, her work ethic instilled by her parents her father a high school teacher and band director, and her mother who worked at a nearby church preschool. But the family lived on one salary for a while  – her father’s – as her mother stayed home to raise the children.

“I never wanted for anything but certainly didn’t grow up in a life of luxury,” said Spinks. “My father was at work a lot as he was the band director so he was working after school and Friday nights.  We all attended games together as a family. My parents tried to show and demonstrate a work/life balance. We took annual vacations and small weekend trips usually camping.  We spent lots of time as a family.  My parents taught me the value of travel and hard work.”When Spinks got her first paying job at a neighbor’s donut and cake shop she put to use the lessons her parents had taught her. “Be on time, do what is asked and ask for extra responsibility. Always be willing to do whatever is needed to help get the job done – make donuts, mop the floor, serve customers with a smile,” she said.

Signia by Hilton | Women’s Work

Bringing us full circle, there’s not a more prescient example of the trust that the Authority places in its women leaders than the hotel development team that’s working to build the campus’ next milestone project, Signia by Hilton.

Hotel development is a functional area identified by the Castell Project where women leadership is significantly lower across the industry.

But on the Signia by Hilton project team, made up of individuals from GWCCA, development partner Drew Co., Hilton, and design firm Gensler, women are well represented. They include the Authority’s LeMaster, Hilton’s Vice President of Luxury, Lifestyle and Corporate Development Amy King, and Theonie J. Alicandro, Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel for Drew Company, Inc.

“The GWCCA has absolutely encouraged an inclusive environment where creative and innovative thinking can be fostered. The GWCCA hotel project has so many senior female leaders on the team, which is rare for such a large, complicated project. It is great to work with such talented women on such an iconic project,” said Alicandro.