When Karyn Steenkamp was growing up in the small town of Holland, New York, she was fascinated by her father’s excavating company’s construction equipment. “I remember studying the user manual for a backhoe when I was maybe 10 years old, so that my dad would let me drive it and dig holes in the backyard,” she told Convene. But it wasn’t until she went to college that she actually considered pursuing engineering as a career.
“I always felt like I could do anything I chose to do,” Steenkamp said. “I had a family that supported me and taught me to believe in myself, and do what I believed in, and never let anybody hold me back.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University at Buffalo, Steenkamp got her first job as a structural design engineer at SWBR Architects in Rochester, New York. After about seven years, she moved into the entertainment world, joining Caesars Entertainment as a project manager in 2006. Later promoted to project director in 2013, Steenkamp has since worked her way up to the role of vice president of design and construction.
Steenkamp has never felt her gender hindered her ability to excel in her career, and she wants to ensure other women get the same opportunities she was afforded. “I’ve worked in a very technical career,” she says. “To me, there’s no difference between a man or woman doing the job. I believe in bringing the best talent in.”
Who are some female colleagues who’ve mentored you throughout your career?
When I first came on board with Caesars, I interviewed with and worked under the guidance of Terry Meistering. She was the vice president of design and construction and I learned so much from her. I believe mentoring is something that happens naturally when you surround yourself with the best. I witnessed [Meistering] being able to control a meeting. She taught me that I didn’t have to do that with screaming and yelling and behaving in a manner that scared people into doing things. We get things done by being smart and thinking through the way we manage things.
Have you mentored young women in your industry?
I have had a few women ask me to be their mentors, and others that have told me that I am their mentor. I think the takeaway from this is that mentoring doesn’t have to be formal. Every day I observe successful men and women and take away the wisdom they have acquired through the years and conversely, I remember that others are doing the same with me. We should never underestimate the power of our actions.
There are quite a few women in executive roles at Caesars — from your experience, is that unusual for a hospitality/gaming company?
I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I do believe we would find that Caesars does lead the industry in this area, but that we still have room for growth. Gender parity is an area of focus for Caesars. We looked at [gender] percentages and we talked about what they meant. We saw that more women are working at line-level positions, and as you go up to the corporate level, you see the percentage of women drops off. So, I think we’re starting to see gender parity in lower-level positions, it’s just not going up to the manager level yet.
Caesars has recently announced a commitment to achieve gender equality in management by 2025. What initiatives are associated with that?
I was asked to become a member of a Lean In circle last year. These circles are essentially small groups of like-minded business professionals, in this case women business professionals, that get together to talk about career, personal, and business life. This was the first time I truly looked at how men and women differ in how they learn, lead, and communicate. Our goal is to have every woman at Caesars be a member of a circle.
We talk about things like how men are more likely to go and ask for a raise, whereas women are not, and men will raise their hands if they have four out of five qualities asked for, where women won’t unless they have every single quality that they’re asking for. I think those are things that are going to make all women within this industry, and women who read and listen to those things, realize that it’s okay to go a little bit outside your comfort zone.
What is the work culture like when there are more women in leadership roles?
I believe companies with more women in charge tend to foster a culture of community over solo achievements. This might be more of an acute observation, but I find that men are more likely to make “I” statements and women are more likely to make “we” statements. I have observed that men tend to take credit for things they may have played a small role in, whereas women tend to downplay their successes even when they played a large role in them.
What do you enjoy the most about your role?
Taking ideas and making them a reality. I enjoy working with our diverse team of individuals, each with their own idea of what the next best thing is, and watching that idea grow and develop into something special that keeps our guests loyal and excited to return to our properties.
What’s one piece of career advice that you’ve tried to follow?
Keep your priorities straight and try not to bring “it” home with you. I try not to let the stress of the day spill over into my family time. Not bringing “it” home means walking through the door at night and making my family my No. 1 priority. I can’t say I always do a great job with this, but I try to be as focused and involved with my kids as possible, taking them to soccer practice, making dinner when I can, helping them with their homework, and taking time to give them baths and read them books. I try to leave any unfinished work for until they have gone to sleep — and believe me, they remind me of this if I don’t.
What’s your biggest on-the-job challenge?
Managing expectations while maintaining schedule and budget. Through the years, I have learned that listening to everyone’s input and then making prompt but educated decisions and sticking to those decisions is key. We have very little room for indecisiveness and lose credibility over time if we flip-flop on our decisions or provide bad data over and over.
What do you want for the next generation of professional women?
Work hard, be confident, and don’t try to be “like the men.” Choose a career doing something you love and then strive to be the best at it. Be who you are, not what you think others want you to be. Another key piece of advice is to never be afraid to say “no,” and that does not mean ignoring the question or blindly saying “no,” that means not saying “yes” to something that could potentially put the project over budget, miss a turnover date, or impact the quality and/or ability to operate the venue.
And finally, my last piece of advice is to remember that bad news does not get better with time. If a problem is encountered, it is best to communicate it early. Take responsibility, don’t try to place blame, find a solution, and get on with it.
Learn more about Caesars Entertainment’s commitment to achieve gender equality by 2025 at convn.org/caesars-2025.
Women in Leadership is produced in partnership with Caesars Entertainment.