Papa John’s chief diversity officer explains why she stayed after the n-word firestorm

Victoria Russell


When Papa John’s founder John Schnatter‘s use of the n-word during a conference call went public in July, sending the company into a tailspin, Victoria Russell wasn’t sure if she could stay at Papa John’s—much less ascend to the role of Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer. But that is indeed what happened.

Schnatter dropped the n-bomb during a conference call with a marketing agency in May. Ironically, the agency was trying to help Schnatter avoid public relations blunders like the one he made last year regarding NFL players’ pre-game protests. When asked how he was going to distance himself and the brand from racist groups online, Schnatter replied, “Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s.” He also recounted that back in his Indiana hometown, people used to drag Black people from trucks until they died.

Customers, employees, and franchise owners were all shocked by the comments, including Victoria Russell, who has been with Papa John’s for 12 years. Schnatter resigned and Papa John’s is making a sharp pivot from the man who not only the founded the company, but was the face of the brand for years.

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As part of the attempt to change Papa John’s narrative, the company recently unveiled a new ad campaign that highlights the diversity and viewpoints of its 120,000 employees. Russell is part of the team leading that effort. She has support from Papa John’s new CEO Steve Ritchie, Black-owned multi-cultural agency NIMBUS, and Bozoma Saint John, who is the Chief Marketing Officer at Endeavor Global Marketing.

Russell spoke with about why she stayed with the company, why she is so passionate about the brand, and how she defines success in her current role.

TheGrio: It can be challenging to navigate corporate America as a Black woman. You’ve been with Papa John’s in various marketing roles for the past 12 years and in an interview with the Courier, you noted that you thought about quitting after the n-word incident. Why did you stay?

Victoria Russell:  When I thought about quitting, it was just a level of frustration, wondering if the company was going to move forward, etc. I stayed because there are 120,000 team members here, a lot who look like me or are females or belong to other groups that have been marginalized. I felt it was very important to stay and be a champion and an advocate where I can.  Stepping away just didn’t seem like the right thing to do. I was confident that our leadership team would allow me to press things that needed to be pushed. Paving the way is difficult, but you have to create a path for others to come from behind. I would love for that to be my legacy at Papa John’s.

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TheGrio: You’re only 37, so it’s unusual that someone of your age has been with the same company for 12 years. What is it about Papa John’s that has made you stick around this long?

Victoria Russell: When I first started here 12 years ago, I thought “Oh, this is just temporary. I’m going to gain some experience and move on to the next thing.” But I loved it here and I fell in love with the people, the company. That was a big factor in why I chose to stay. I thought to myself that it wouldn’t be fair for all of that to happen and I have to walk away from my family. Twelve years is a long time. I thought it would be more advantageous to stay and fight and hopefully turn this thing around.

TheGrio: You were not always specifically working in diversity. Why did you make that pivot?

Victoria Russell: We created the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in the late fall of 2017. This is something we had talked about prior to the NFL situation, so that just got us up and running in the winter. While we were late to the game, you have to start somewhere. At the beginning of the year, I started meeting with chief diversity officers and community leaders all over the city, gaining their perspective and insight to benchmark where we were, where we could go, where we should go. We realized that someone needed to devote 100% of their time to this. Our CEO Steve Ritchie offered me the opportunity to move to the head of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee back in May and in July, I became the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer.

TheGrio: That is a pretty hefty title. What exactly is your job?

It was important to me that all three words were in the title. It’s bigger than just diversity. Some folks think it is about headcount. Diversity is not about counting people, it’s about making people count. We wanted to make it more diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, all of that. It was also important to have inclusion in the title because we want a caring environment where employees feel comfortable and bring their whole selves to work. The equity piece is the most important. We’re always engaged in working towards looking at the inequities of our people and being aware and consciously doing something about it.

TheGrio: A number of large corporations have come under fire in recent months about racist policies and actions. Starbucks went so far as to shut down stores for a day for training. Will there be something similar for Papa John’s?

Victoria Russell: Diversity and inclusion training was already in the works prior to the July incident. The day before the comments came out, I was in Canada reviewing the pilot for the diversity training. That night, I flew back and I was so excited to get the training going and the following morning, I woke up to that Forbes article. The blessing in disguise is that this situation has allowed more time, attention, and resources to be paid to this initiative. This is probably the most stressful time in my life, but it’s also the most exciting. Our trainings are definitely coming, but it won’t involve shutting down all operations for a day.

TheGrio: How will this additional training impact franchisees?

Victoria Russell: This is something we’ve talked to our franchisees about and they have been very supportive of having diversity and inclusion training coming in. We are also working on a franchise development minority program. We want to lower the barrier, not the standard. If you come into Papa John’s as a franchisee, that’s diversifying that population as well. We want our diversity to be our strength and our competitive advantage.We’re not going to turn this ship around overnight, but let’s get our ducks in order, create a strategy and move forward. We’re making this a more inclusive culture for all team members. All of these things will positively impact the culture of Papa John’s internally and externally. At the end of the day, we’re all better together.

TheGrio: You sound like a commercial.

Victoria Russell: I’m a believer!

TheGrio: What does success look like for you in this role?

Victoria Russell: Right now, I’m in the phase of evaluation, benchmarking, setting the direction. As we’re looking at our culture audit and surveying employees, have we changed how franchisees and employees feel about the brand? Long term success for me would be have we changed the perception of the brand in the consumer’s eye? Did they start to see who we really are?

Also, I’d like to mention our CEO Steve Ritchie, who has been with the company for about 22 years. He started at $6 per hour as a regular team member. So he has an amazing story there about what it’s like to start at that point and getting to the top while creating pathways of success for other people. He genuinely cares about the team members because he himself was one. He’s not your typical corporate guy. A big part of diversity and inclusion is focusing on the allies. It’s important that people know this encompasses everyone. Even white males can be role models and allies to the success of women and minorities.