Essay by VICTORIA RUSSELL
Photography by GiOncarlo Valentine
PRODUCED BY RYOT STUDIO
“I am ready to go,”
my mother said, after a two-year battle with cancer. It was the Wednesday after Mother’s Day, 2018, and three days later, she was gone. She was more than my mother. She was my champion, my cheerleader, my mentor and my best friend.
I didn’t know that the lessons this woman taught me and the strength she instilled would have prepared me for what was to come. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to take on the biggest challenge of my career. In just a couple weeks, I would become the first person to lead diversity, equity and inclusion for Papa John’s during its most challenging time in its history.
From left: Victoria Russell with her family during Christmas, 2013; Victoria’s niece and nephew at Easter in 2017.
My mother battled with stage 4 ovarian cancer and passed away almost a year and a half ago. When she was first diagnosed, it was shocking to all of us. She was 72 when the doctor shared the grim prognosis. Her response was typical Mom: “The Bible only promises three-score and 10. So the way I see it, I’ve got a couple-years’ bonus.” That was her attitude.
She was an amazing woman, a very tough lady and a fighter. After watching her journey and transition, I’d finally learned the type of life that I wanted to lead. One that would honor her legacy and continue to make her proud of me. I wanted to lead a life of significance beyond success, and these Papa John’s moments became the catalyst that helped me find my calling.
“You cannot have this job if you're afraid to lose it.”
In the months before she passed, we spent countless hours together just talking — about everything. I remember stories about family, the students she taught as a middle school science teacher, and sharing recipes. I don’t recall a single story about how much money she made, the cars she drove or the homes she’s lived in. When people say, “Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives,” well, my mother lived that truth right up until the end.
I found myself beginning this journey of making a real impact at my workplace during the months preceding her passing. My peers had elected me chair of our newly created D&I committee.
I took this work seriously and began reaching out to D&I officers in the city who connected me to others at a national level. I wasn’t exactly sure where we needed to begin, so I asked for help! And when you humbly ask for help, you'd be surprised. People will help you. I feel both called to do this work and well equipped. My faith is important to me, and I believe “where God guides, he provides.”
I found a very important mentor in Dr. John Marshall, the chief equity officer for Jefferson County Public Schools. He said something that made a significant impression upon me. It was something important for those working to raise awareness for diversity and inclusion in their workplace. He said, "Victoria, you cannot have this job if you're afraid to lose it."
Victoria and her family attending service at Westport Road Church of Christ in Louisville, KY.
This role is not to be a symbol of diversity or merely to check boxes, but if truly effective, it should be an agitator and a disruptor. I learned through him that this role would include helping evolve the culture of the entire organization for the better, and it wouldn’t be easy.
I also heard my mother’s voice in my head; my “forever mentor.” She would have reminded me to focus on the priority here and to speak up. I knew that the priority was our people, the 120,000 team members and their families around the globe, as well as the 800-plus franchisees who have served their communities for decades. This was the opportunity to be their voice.
Of course, I considered leaving given what I had just gone through in my personal life. Like many of my colleagues, my character was attacked if I wore the logo in public, and I was accused of being a sellout. But I wanted to make a real impact at my workplace. I wanted to stand for something greater, and that could only be done if I stayed.
I'm one person of so many in the brand who wanted to have that impact and be a part of one of the greatest turnaround stories in this industry. We quickly realized there are many of us behind this brand. We are not one person.
“If there isn’t a seat at
the table, create one!
But take that a step further.
Once there, slide over and make room for others.”
The past 18 months have been the most challenging period of my life, but they’ve also been the most rewarding. Papa John’s has accomplished a lot in a short period of time: We’ve diversified our leadership and board and launched company-wide unconscious bias training sessions; we’ve established six employee resource groups, as well as a supplier diversity policy and initiative. We’ve begun to create a culture that allows our team members to bring their whole selves to work. And once again, I am proud to wear our logo.
While this experience has taught me a lot about myself, it’s mostly showed me the value of the village, my support group. My village consists of a variety of people who’ve impacted my life or imparted some sort of wisdom. It ranges from other diversity officers, community leaders and CEOs, to my family, sorority sisters, coworkers and childhood friends. They are the ones who are honest with me. They tell me when I’m wrong and build me up when I need it. I couldn’t have done any of this without them — I wouldn’t want to.
At my mother’s funeral, so many people told me stories about the impact she had on their life as a teacher, friend, family member. That's how she was remembered. And that's what I want to strive to do.
And that’s my challenge to you: Define what really drives you, what really motivates you. Where do you find your significance? Because material things in life don’t go with you in the end. You won’t be remembered by the things you possessed. You’ll be remembered by the impact that you make.
Victoria with her friends and collaborators, Dawn and Stacey Wade (pictured at right).
So here, in the spirit of mentorship, I offer some advice for anyone in the D&I space who might be in the same boat as I was two years ago, in need of a mentor (you can also feel free to reach out to me on social media. I’m @msvrussell):
When people can start getting comfortable being uncomfortable, it’s working! This was the premise behind the work of Nimbus, Inc., our first-ever 100% black-owned multicultural agency that we brought on in June, 2018. CEO and Founder, Stacey Wade, and their Chief Strategist, Dr. Dawn Wade, not only push us to be better, but they bring a different perspective to the table. They question and challenge us daily, creating deeper, richer dialogue that helps spur real change. It was important that we understand where we were and how we got there in order to create the culture and organization that we desired. Tough conversations were critical. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
1. Knowing better allows you an opportunity to do better.
2. It might feel like you’re building your airplane while flying it, but you’re not alone.
Building consciousness around diversity, equity and inclusion is a journey. It's a constant learning experience. I've spent a lot of time in communities, at conventions or with other brands, convening and gaining leading practices from others in the D&I community.
The CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion coalition has been integral in connecting me with others like myself. After we signed the I Act On pledge, I attended my first CEO Action summit, and I left feeling so inspired because I realized I’m not alone. There’s a lot of people out here trying to do real work, make real change, and I see how hard it is. And sometimes there’s this concept of a few steps forward, one step back. Maybe three more steps, another step back. It’s not a straight path. It’s going to be a lot of zigs and zags, but as long as we’re making progress forward, I’m OK with that. I’ve gotten comfortable with, “OK, today was a setback. I’m going to refuel, reenergize, and come back and try it again tomorrow.”
3. If there isn’t a seat at the table, create one! But take that a step further. Once there, slide over and make room for others.
Getting to this place in my career came with its share of challenges, and I am thankful to those who allowed me to stand on their platform while I built my own. For instance, I am thankful to the Leadership Louisville Center for giving me the opportunity to tell my story as a part of their 100 Wise Women series, and to the CEO and leadership of Papa John’s who continue to champion a culture of change from the top down.
I believe there is a responsibility to support and build up others around me, as many have done for me. I’ve been able to watch my team and our employee resource group leaders step forward, blossom and begin using their own voice to better the entire brand.
It is my job to create the space and opportunity — and then step out of the way.