Lee Willows: ‘ESG Gaming will continue my journey of learning’

Lee Willows ESG Gaming
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Lee Willows’ decision to step down as CEO of YGAM, the charity that he founded, took some of the gambling industry by surprise. In his first interview since stepping back he reflects on the journey he ended with YGAM and the one he is now embarking with ESG Gaming.


Coinslot: Your decision to step down from the charity you founded cannot have been at all easy. Can you outline your thinking?

Lee Willows: The plan was always, at some point, to step down from YGAM. That time for me came in the summer of 2021, when I tendered my resignation. Having lived and breathed the charity for seven years the time was right.

You often hear in the charity sector of ‘Founder Syndrome’; well, I was determined this would not happen to YGAM, a charity I absolutely love. Additionally, I’m about to start my MBA and I wanted a little more freedom and oxygen as the focus of my studies will be around leadership in the gaming sector and sustainability, which would have presented a conflict for YGAM.

Coinslot: How do you reflect on the birth and development of YGAM?

Lee Willows: The charity was born following my crippling gambling addiction and with my co-founders Anne and Keith Evans, who also have their own tragic story of addiction, we were united in wanting to use our lived-experience for the greater good. Our journey over the past seven years has been deeply personal, deeply emotional, yet inspirational and impactful all in one. The emotions you go through can only be really understood if you have taken a similar path arising from an addiction or founding an organisation. We were never about chasing headlines or being in the limelight; moreover, we were about friendship, learning and recovery. Making friends first, with a wide range of people and stakeholders was critically important to us; as from that friendship came learning. Learning about what the Government, operators, campaigners, regulators and other people affected by gambling harms wanted to see. Learning by actually spending time with operators and regulators to understand how they are tackling gambling harms at first hand. Learning by listening to and speaking with decision makers in the Board Room. Learning by spending time and listening to current and former addicts and their families. Learning has been deeply important to us as it affords us the opportunity to look at gambling (harms) through different lenses. However, the biggest gift YGAM has given to Anne and I in particular is recovery. The outpouring of grief and emotion on an almost weekly basis in the first four years; the space to learn and try to understand the addiction; our desire to speak to everybody, treating them as equal; and the friendships we have now made. Our recovery was framed around building those friendships, which have helped us to reconcile a very difficult period in our lives and create a legacy. That very personal journey of recovery continues and will be with us for the rest of our lives.

Coinslot: What are your plans for the future and what is ESG Gaming?

Lee Willows: ESG Gaming is a vision that I have had for a couple of years now, but I wanted to get the timing right in order to launch the new venture. As I reach the milestone of being predominantly in the third sector for three decades and having undertaken almost every conceivable role possible in the sector; it feels like ESG Gaming will be an accumulation of everything that I have learnt. It also will potentially be my last opportunity to create further impact in society, being my ‘last job’ before I retire in the next 15- years.

Therefore, this move will be personal, socially driven and one where I have chosen my lived-experience to remain central to its mission. In the summer my family and I registered ESG Corporate as a company limited by guarantee and we have just completed the process to become a regulated Community Interest Company (CIC). We chose this legal structure as we have a strong belief in creating social good by a non-profit structure and to ensure should we wind the business up, all assets will be donated.

ESG Corporate will trade as two bespoke brands; ESG Gaming which we will launch first and then ESG Retail which will follow in 2022/23. We are predominantly a Business to Business (B2B) CIC and for ESG Gaming our social purpose is built around supporting regulated jurisdictions and their safer gambling strategies. We will do this by: Environment: Helping gaming businesses understand how they use energy and manage their environmental impact. Social: Collaborating with gaming businesses to support their work around fostering their people, culture, and products to minimise negative impacts on society at large. Our work will have a strong focus on the protection of vulnerable customers through our lived-experience. Governance: Supporting gaming businesses to build transparency with their system of controls, practices, and procedures to govern and reduce gambling-related harm. We believe in being authentic, humble and gracious and together we want to build purposeful collaborations to lead impactful social change. Our work has an aspiration to go beyond just safer-gambling and we hope to work collaboratively to oxygenate the sector for public good.

Coinslot: YGAM grew to become a substantial organisation – what are your aspirations for ESG Gaming?

Lee Willows: We are already in conversations with some regulators, operators, academics and delivery partners, around collaborative work. We want to move beyond what is the frequently transactional nature of working with non-profit partners and instead develop purposeful collaborations where success and corporate partnerships can be celebrated. We want to recognise those who choose to work with us in a mutually beneficial manner; one such way is we are launching the ESG Green Gaming Award next year. This is an externally accredited programme focusing on gaming businesses green credentials, which we and our partner will award at nil cost to businesses whom engage with us. ESG Gaming will facilitate new ideas, bring new partnerships to the gaming sector and bring refreshing insight. We want to not only imagine the future but roll our sleeves up and create that future through working together.

Coinslot: Where can the industry expect to see you next and how can you be contacted?

Lee Willows: Safer Gambling Week provides a perfect platform to start the conversation of ESG Gaming. This year’s theme is based around Taking Time to Think and that is what I will be doing alongside attending a couple of gaming events and giving presentations to various operators. We’ll officially launch ESG Gaming in 2022, as I feel it is important to be able to showcase some insight and impact at launch. I am looking forward to working with our founding partners, who will be announced in the coming few months, to create a vision, build a team and develop and evaluate products.

We are looking for a couple more founding partners to join us and specifically seeking support around ESG Gaming branded merchandise; B2B marketing and communications; accreditation and fundraising. If you feel you might be able to help us, I’d love to have an in person or virtual coffee with you, please do get in touch lee@esggaming.org or call 0203 488 5227.

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