Victoria Russell, Chief of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion of Papa Johns International
Victoria Russell
VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Papa John’s

Papa John’s Victoria Russell on Valuing ‘Significance Beyond Success’

After missteps by its ousted CEO, Papa John’s is steadily making progress as a safe and welcoming company thanks in part to the efforts of Victoria Russell. In 2018, after more than a decade at the company, Russell was elevated to oversee diversity, equity and inclusion—a newly created role. Victoria’s journey hasn’t been always easy, but read on to learn about the most important person who influenced her career and why allies are so important.

How did you get to where you are today?

In 2018, I stepped up during difficult times to become the first to lead Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Papa John’s. I am here now because of the village of people that surround me, both inside and outside the organization. As a new executive to the role of DEI, I tapped into a network of D&I champions, equity advocates and corporate activists. I found this space to be welcoming, encouraging and supportive. Our common goal was to break down the invisible barriers that exist for traditionally marginalized communities and create workplaces that are inclusive and diverse.     

Tell us about what you are doing now, outside of your daily job?

"The injustice we are facing won’t be solved by one group or community."

I am active in my community serving on several non-profit boards and have stepped up most recently to help provide guidance and leadership in the area of racial equity in my community. My passion is people and I am honored to pay forward the coaching, guidance and mentorship I’ve received along the way to others. The injustice we are facing won’t be solved by one group or community. This is a humanity issue and will require all of us coming together for a solution. We must acknowledge, listen, commit and take action. We all have a part to play in the future we hope to have.

What pivotal moments did you face along the way?

In May of 2018, my mother passed away from stage 4 ovarian cancer. Shortly after Mother’s Day, she succumbed to her illness. During her final moments, she gave me the most valuable lesson she ever taught me. She was giving away all of her material things and emptied her wallet of her last remaining $20. You can’t take it with you. She talked about all the people she loved and told me she was proud of me and my sister and the women we had become. At her funeral, people shared the most beautiful moments and all the ways she touched their lives. Never once did they reference any of her monetary success or things she possessed. I work to honor her legacy by pursuing a life of significance beyond success.

What do you see as the major opportunities and challenges for women today?

Overcoming gender stereotypes and unconscious bias. Navigating false perceptions are fatiguing. To compound that with racial diversity or other dimensions of diversity presents additional challenges. That coupled with juggling work, family and often being the primary caregiver is tough but women are naturally resilient. We can withstand more than we know. Seek mentorship, believe in yourself, find your voice and GO!

What advice can you share?

Lift as you climb. If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together. Too often, people get content and comfortable in their roles and begin to protect their position. In the past, there was a notion that there is only room for one woman at the table. If that’s the case, build a bigger table. Once there, slide over and make room for others. Allies, mentors and sponsorship are critical. 

How are you making sure there’s continued focus on D&I, especially after Papa John’s founder left over racism accusations and now with Black Lives Matter at the forefront?

"Responsibility begins at the top with accountability held by all..."

We’ve made a lot of progress in the space of D&I.  While we are not yet where we’d like to be, we are not where we’ve been. We continue the focus by ensuring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are woven into the DNA of the brand. The true diversity leader of an organization is the CEO. Responsibility begins at the top with accountability held by all of our leaders. We are not looking back. We are moving forward and ensuring Papa John’s is a place everyone feels safe and included.  We strive to live our values by putting people first and creating culture where everyone belongs.

Who has helped you in your journey and how did they help shape your thinking or career?

Too many to name! First and foremost, my mother. All the tools I needed for this journey, she provided. I seek wise counsel from other diversity mentors and allies to the work. From diversity, civic and community leaders, team members and colleagues, I am surrounded by people making an impact and a difference in the lives of others.

Knowing what you know today, what one thing would you have done differently early in your career? 

I wouldn’t change a thing. This journey has not been easy but nothing worth doing ever was. Today’s tests are tomorrow’s testimony.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, money or talent would be no object, what would you be doing?

First, resting! Seriously, if I had to answer that 3 or 4 years ago, my response would have been very different. I would travel all over the world (pre-Covid). I would mentor and develop children. I would want to pass on the lessons I learned from my mother and one day feel the pride she had in me, in others.