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Conversations That Inspire: Raising the Stakes

Learn how Erin Lydon is using poker to help all generations of women go all-in.

Originally published in Winter 2023 Elevating Women Magazine

Watch the interview here.


Steph Wagner, National Director of Women & Wealth, sat down with Erin Lydon, President of Poker Power, to discuss how poker is more than a game; it’s a game-changer for women across all generations.

We hope you enjoy learning about how thinking like a poker player gives all women the skills to succeed from the classroom to the boardroom.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity

Steph Wagner: Erin, I am so glad you’re here today. I have been looking forward to this conversation.

Erin Lydon: I’m so delighted to be here with you. And thank you to Northern Trust for having me.

SW: Absolutely! I think that what you’re doing with Poker Power is so interesting. And I have to admit, at first I didn’t get it — poker and women? And then the more I learned, it hit me. Our organizations both share the mission of the economic empowerment of women and recognize the importance of providing the resources and tools to really impact them and help them build confidence around money. And I just I love that! So, I’d like for you to start there. What is poker power? And really, I think, almost more importantly, why poker?

EL: Great. Happy to do so. I get asked this question a lot. The company name is Poker Power. So, at our core, we are a community of girls and women, and we are using the game of poker, the strategy of poker, to empower women across the globe. And we do it through a very innovative curriculum. We are virtual; we are in person; we are on apps. We’ve built the products that are needed to deliver the messages and the skills and the strategies that are so critical for girls across the board — we say we’re from interns all the way to the C-suite, teenagers to grandmas. That is our community.

You may not know this if you’re not a poker player, but poker is a game of adjustments. Poker is a game of imperfect information. And what occurs at a poker table so closely mirrors what occurs in a boardroom or what occurs at a negotiation table. When you’re talking with a client and you’re trying to figure out a strategy to get them to the next step — all of that can be practiced through poker game play, and that’s the secret sauce. Typically, when you think of poker you think of gross smoky basements, opulent casinos and you think of places that women don’t sit. And that’s what we’re changing.

SW: I love it! And you’re talking about how it’s teaching negotiation skills and how it’s teaching strategy, right? To be more strategic, to think beyond just what’s in front of you, to try to predict and react. I love that. And I think even beyond just negotiating during the day-to-day at work, even negotiating your worth. It’s so important not just for us, but especially for the next generation. Can you talk a little bit about how this all came about? Because it really is an incredible story.

EL: Well, I love telling this story because I was not a poker player at all. And I started my career on Wall Street. I started a career in finance in 1999 and back then pay was secret and pregnancy was hidden. And I was surrounded by a lot of men and a lot of poker, and I never took my seat.

The original idea for Poker Power actually came from Jenny Just. She is the co-founder of PEAK6, which is an equity options trading firm here in Chicago, as well as many other businesses. In fact, we are one of the portfolio companies. The moment that really was the ‘aha’ around poker was with her 14-year-old daughter, Juliet, who at the time was a very good tennis player but had had kind of a mediocre match. Jenny and her husband Matt were in their kitchen talking, and Matt says, ‘Juliette should learn to play poker.’

Jenny, who is a visionary and sees a solution to a problem before most of us even realize there is a problem, sort of sat with that idea: ‘Should I really teach my 14-year-old daughter to play poker?’ And it sounded so funny to her, especially because there are three older boys in that family. All three of them know how to play poker and they weren’t taught. They just grew up knowing how to play poker.

SW: That’s right. My three boys as well.

EL: But why did it sound so strange to say that a 14-year-old girl should learn to play? What Matt was getting at is he realized in her tennis game, she wasn’t playing the player. She wasn’t being strategic. She wasn’t predicting and using probabilities, thinking what’s going to happen next in the match. And so, he saw that as something that could be improved through the game of poker.

And so, when we started we were very focused on high school girls. Initially, it made sense. We got Juliet and a bunch of her friends together. We had to find a female poker teacher, which is not easy to do. Our very first teacher is actually a Chicago Public Schools third-grade teacher and an excellent poker player. It really was grassroots.

But what started to happen is the moms would say, ‘Well, if it’s so good for my 14-year-old daughter, why am I not doing this?’ Women typically don’t play this game, and women certainly don’t Google how to play poker. So, the whole premise around the game, and the negative stereotypes so many of us hold, prevents us from even exploring that this could be just an incredible tool.

SW: Well, I think that’s what hit me, personally. As I learned about it, I was like, ‘wait, wait, what?’ I had the exact initial reaction that you just described. And then when I began to peel back the onion and really dive into it, I thought, ‘This makes complete sense and why am I not playing?’ In fact, we should all be playing. So it’s working, Erin!

And I love the story of how it was created. Can you talk a little bit about the pivot? While you did start with girls, the company is now heading into a different direction and yet you’re using this new direction to still impact that next generation.

EL: So, I joined the company in February of 2020, and if you think back to February 2020, there was a lot happening in the world. And three weeks later, we were in lockdown. I thought I was going to run a company where we taught real women, with real chips and cards at real tables. That was the idea. But very quickly we had to pivot and become very innovative. We had to start to use the virtual world that we were all thrust into, or this business would have failed, and we would just run out of steam.

Very quickly the girls who were in our community were completely overwhelmed by the amount of time they had to spend on Zoom. Their schooling and the disruption to their lives was enormous. We really lost the momentum that we had just started to build. We had three months to figure it out. That’s the runway that Jenny gave us to create a virtual curriculum.

We knew we had to make poker incredibly welcoming and inclusive. And that’s not what the game is. It is none of those things. We also had to make it bite size, we had to make the lessons digestible. We had to translate gameplay to negotiation and decision making and problem solving, and we had to create the fun part. And I don’t know if you remember, but it was hard to have fun across a Zoom screen. We didn’t know how to do that.

SW: No, none of us did.

EL: And so as we looked to bring our community together, we started to pivot to corporates. And the reason we did that is it is so clearly a next step for women on any step of the ladder looking to accelerate their careers. They’re looking to get comfortable with money. And you can do that through the game of poker. We initially partnered with a few internal companies at PEAK6.

Our first actual external client was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the big technology conference for women, and we taught 100 C-suite technologists over Zoom. And I will tell you, I’ve never gone back and watched that video because I think I would just be absolutely mortified, you know how bumpy we were at being virtual back then.

SW: Yes, we all were!

EL: But that’s really when we started to receive feedback like, ‘Oh, this is fun, this is fascinating. I see why these skills matter!’

SW: And you’re building a community, which is so critical at any time. But I think during that time in particular, creating that engagement, creating those connections for people was so important. Obviously, so many positives there. And your timing — there are a lot of silver linings that came from that period of time. We all learned a lot. And I’m glad that this new direction has yielded such success.

I also think it is important to add that we all want to give something positive to our children, right? Of course, I want to teach my three boys things and give them tools that will positively impact their careers, their lives, and help them learn from our successes, right? As well as our mistakes. But we often don’t sit back and realize how much we need something in that moment. And you’ve created awareness around that.

And also, the need for modeling. If we do it first, we’re showing the next generation through our actions, not words. So, you’re really creating a phenomenal way to help ourselves and the current leaders of corporate America, but also to impact our children. And I just love that. I think engaging that next gen this way is powerful, and maybe even more powerful than the original direction of the company.

EL: I do too. And I think poker game play at its core is a game of interaction. No one plays poker all by themself. It’s not very much fun. You need a community. And what happened during the pandemic for us, pivoting mostly towards corporates — we will always teach young girls; it’s very much part of our mission — but now we’ve been able to scale to 40 countries and we have 150 corporate partners. That, I really don’t think — and I can say that as the person running this company — my head would have gone there back when we started. It simply wasn’t a possibility.

SW: I love it. So why don’t we talk a little bit about the curriculum? Because how you’re doing it is really impactful. First the why, but now let’s get into your approach.

EL: We’ve built 18 one-hour poker lessons. That’s our flagship offering and that’s what we deliver across the globe via virtual lessons. When you first learn with us, we will tell you that you’re going to learn leadership lessons by gamifying poker. It’s gamifying the game of poker. We’ve also gamified leadership.

Each lesson has a theme and each one is an hour. The first one is courage, because it takes a lot of courage for a woman to sit down at a poker table. We’re very trepidatious to do that. The next one is bold. This lesson teaches how to use aggression at the poker table, which is a critical skill to win a poker game. This is just as critical when you’re negotiating and working with clients.

SW: I love what you just said because so often as women, we shy away from being aggressive. We are afraid of delivering that message. If we’re aggressive, how will that be received by others? What you are talking about really is about building confidence. Confidence in the game of poker transcends into confidence in life. I love it! I know you have some rules too, right?

EL: Oh, we do, yes. We like to only give two or three bits of information in each one of our lessons, and that’s what we want the women to be practicing when they’re playing with us. For lesson one, our rule is no limping. And it is just as bad as it sounds. In poker, no limping means that you can’t just put in enough chips to stay in the hand. In other words, you’re not going to call the hand and put the minimum in.

Instead, what we teach in our classes is that we want you to do three times the big blind. And if you don’t play poker, I am sure you’re thinking ‘what is all that?’ There is so much jargon in poker so please don’t worry about it. All you have to take away from this is you don’t get to play the minimum, and I want you to push to the maximum. I want you to actually feel outside of your comfort zone and fail because you’re going to lose a lot at poker. Even the best poker players lose a lot of hands at poker. The secret is, that when you have the hand or when you’re in the position to bluff (and there’s a lot of factors that will help you make that decision) that’s when you’re going to lean in and be aggressive.

As women — and I know this about myself — if you didn’t grow up doing that on the sport court or you never navigated a male dominated environment and been successful, it can feel really challenging. And we can’t just walk into the first time we negotiate something that really matters and know how to do it. You have to practice it. And the poker table is a superb place to practice.

SW: Unbelievable. First of all, ‘no limping’ is the new mantra… I love it! It’s so symbolic of so many things, but what you’re also talking about is building the confidence to take risks, and leaning into that discomfort, because discomfort means you’re growing. I love it. And this is a real live version of it all playing out and seeing the rewards and, to your point, the failures. Because we learn from those too. I love that you highlighted that. Brilliant.

EL: One of the other lessons that is easy to remember so we say it a lot, is that if your hand is good enough to play, it’s good enough to raise. Without knowing the jargon of poker, all you need to understand is that as you’re looking at your two cards — and they’re private, no one sees those — you have to make a very binary decision. Am I going to raise or am I going to fold? Fold means you’re out of the game. Raise means you’re still playing. In Poker Power, we say if your hand is good enough to raise — and we help you understand how to make that decision — then we want you to play it really big. We want you to go in with a lot of chips.

And I can tell you whether it’s virtual, or at an inperson workshop, as soon as we say to a player who puts in just two chips, we’re like, ‘no, you’ve got to do three times the big blind,’ which means six chips. Typically, she’ll then say, ‘I can’t do that. That’s so much, that’s so many chips. I can’t do that.’ And I say, ‘You can!’ The physical act of pushing value to really validate the decision you’ve made — that shifts the mindset. It’s intellectual and physical, and it works. The best moment is when a woman has analyzed the situation and she’s made the right decision at the poker table, and she wins all those chips and gets to scoop them all back. That’s my favorite part.

SW: Those are powerful words, really powerful words, that you just said. It’s much bigger than just at the poker table when you think about it in the game of life, right? One thing that is important to stress is no money is ever exchanged, correct?

EL: Yes. Thank you for saying that. And it really is critical because the stereotypes around poker are very much situated within a casino or in a home game space where there’s 20 bucks on the table. At Poker Power, there is no money. There’s no gambling. Everything we’re doing is to stack skills. And that’s really how we think about it.

And also, as you mentioned earlier, the risk taking — we actually were concerned in the very beginning that if there’s no money on the table, is it really going to feel like a risk? Are you really going to be able to practice that? We now have no concerns about that at all because we have almost 30,000 women that are in our community now, and I’ve watched so many of them struggle to push those chips in.

And what we know with women is if you have $10 to spend, you’re going to really think ‘Do I spend it on me? Do I spend on my children? Do I spend on my charity?’ Most often ‘me’ doesn’t get the $10. And so, we’re typically very uncomfortable making that decision and then putting the risk into the table. We think it’s just a critical way to get better at it.

SW: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Well, let’s talk a little bit about that next gen, because I know this whole amazing idea started with the desire to impact the next gen. You’re very much impacting the next generation in the work you’re doing right now through your corporate programs, through the mothers, the sisters, the aunts. But can you talk about the great work you’re doing directly with the next gen? Again, aligning with the inspiration of how this all started?

EL: Thank you for asking this because at our core we are so committed to empowering young girls. So actually, before they even step on to the ladder, they have leveled the playing field. We think it’s really critical. And at Poker Power, we are not trying to exist outside of everything that happens in corporate America, outside of men at all. We’re just trying to provide skills so that women can be more competitive when they get there.

One of the things that we’ve done is partnered with a number of high schools, certainly here in the U.S., but even abroad. In fact, the partnership we’re most proud of is with an organization called Global Give Back, which is an extraordinary nonprofit organization. And we have been asked to teach 5,000 girls across Kenya how to play poker. We completed our first cohort and are starting our second cohort in January 2023.

It was an extraordinary experience, because obviously this is all virtual. You may not realize this, but technology was a big challenge. We needed cell phones for all the girls so they could play on the poker app. We had to deal with bandwidth issues on Zoom. There are many, many obstacles, but the girls stuck with it. Our instructors stuck with it.

We’ve just received feedback from this first cohort. It’s extraordinary how life changing it has been for these girls who grew up in very marginalized communities, with very limited opportunities. They sometimes play better than any of us. They are able to translate practicing aggression at the poker table and apply decision making at the poker table to the opportunities they’re now creating for themselves.

Anything we do with schools, we do without cost to the students. As I shared, it’s very much a part of our mission and we want to be empowering the next generation. And now we have this incredible example of what we’ve done in Kenya, and we want to replicate it around the world.

SW: It’s not only where you started (focusing on next gen) but really where you’ve been doubling down — no pun intended.

EL: Raising the stakes.

SW: Exactly. I mean you’re helping them, no doubt. But the gift back to you, as an organization, is huge. Just phenomenal work. What are some other examples?

EL: Another thing to add is that many in our community now are adult women and working women. And what we love to see is when the women start to share this with their daughters and their nieces. And I can tell you personally that this happened to me over Thanksgiving. I have two teenage daughters. One is 16 and one is 19. And my 19-year-old came home from college and I said, ‘Will you play poker with me?’ She knows how to play, but she’s not really a game player. She’s just not that comfortable. Well, she played phenomenally. The progress I saw in her, her processing and analyzing of information, she’s thinking about the probabilities of pot odds and making decisions based on that. So, I had that moment with her. But even more importantly, I now have a game that I’m playing with both of my daughters, and they feel amazing. They feel so confident when they get to pull all the chips in from the pot.

We know that this is very much from mother to daughter, to sister to friend — that is truly how we’re going to scale to a million women, which is the goal. And so, if I can teach you and then you can pass it on to your niece, and she’s going to tell someone else because you don’t play poker alone. You have to find a community to play with. So come to us or certainly, you know, share it with your friends and family.

SW: Well, I love that story because it’s about meeting at a common place to do something together. And even the dialogue that comes out of that experience together is a gift. And I think there’s so much talk about how generations are so disconnected, and how the next generation thinks differently than we do. We do think differently than them, but this is a way to bring generations together and do something and learn together, simultaneously. Now you have become quite a player, haven’t you? But for me, sitting down with next gen, I’m at the starting point just like them. I’ve never done it before. So, to do that together, I think is really powerful and a really unique opportunity.

EL: Well, the poker table is a meritocracy. And the reason we say that is, it doesn’t matter where you went to school; it doesn’t matter what your title is. When you sit down at the poker table in those first few hands everyone is even until you start to play the player, which is what we say in Poker Power: you’re playing the player, not just the cards.

For girls in particular, that can be such a confidence booster for them because it doesn’t matter what the background is. We are going to start to play this game. I may know you as a colleague, but I don’t know how you’re going to play poker. And there’s all sorts of personalities and skill sets that come out at a poker table.

And in fact, at a poker table, you actually never have to speak. And that’s another very interesting point for women who might be more reserved verbally with what they want to say in particularly high stakes, confrontational settings. You don’t have to say a word at a poker table. You can make all your decisions, show all your worth, by how you play those cards and those chips.

SW: I never thought about it like that, but really an interesting insight. And you’re absolutely right!

Well, Erin, I cannot thank you enough for your work. I think our audience will understand why I got so excited when I heard about Poker Power and learned more about the great work that you and your team are doing. I’m excited to start playing poker!

EL: I can’t wait to teach you! It’s my favorite thing to do.

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