Victoria Russell’s journey to her current position as Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Beam-Suntory came after years of championing DEI initiatives in some of Kentucky’s largest companies.
BW: How did your business background prepare you to become Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Beam Suntory?
VR: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was not exactly a career path I had ever considered. I earned a Bachelor of Business Administration and my MBA in Marketing from the University of Kentucky. From there I held various roles in marketing, human resources, and compensation at Lexmark, Humana, and Brown-Forman. Prior to my current role as Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Beam Suntory, I enjoyed 14 years at Papa John’s International, where I held various marketing analytics roles before stepping up during challenging times in 2018 to chair the company’s first D&I committee, standing up many of the company’s D&I initiatives in partnership with other passionate leaders and employees around the organization. I then transitioned to a D&I leader role within the HR function to focus on DEI full-time before eventually becoming the company’s first Chief of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, reporting to the CEO. In that role, I worked toward step-changing the company’s actions to build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization, comprised of 120,000 team members. Together, with support from a dedicated DEI team and leadership, we created and implemented new strategic pillars and values that framed our DEI strategy that included building a culture of leaders who believe in inclusivity, diversity, and winning, and establishing eight Employee Resource Groups that created a space for team members to be heard, champion change, and be more engaged. Additionally, we launched a Supplier Diversity initiative and policy, rolled out unconscious bias trainings, diversified the executive leadership team and board of directors, established a diverse spectrum of community partnerships, recognized a variety of heritage months and cultural moments, facilitated courageous conversations, and instituted and a DEI Executive Insights Series.
This experience prepared me to lead DEI at Beam Suntory where we are building strategic solutions across key business areas including talent acquisition, career development and employee retention, marketing, community relations, and building organizational capability to better recognize bias and further drive inclusive mindset, and seek data and insights that support those objectives.
BW: What does your day-to-day on the job look like?
VR: What I love about this job is that no day is ever the same. My main priority has been building out a robust DEI strategy centered on three pillars: Workforce (people & representation), Workplace (culture & workplace environment), and Marketplace (brand, company, and community impact). That has involved getting leaders and teams across the global organization on board and ensuring they understand their role in bringing our DEI vision to life. I’m in a unique position to have DEI sit within my team’s scope, as we are building out a global DEI team at Beam Suntory that will serve as advocates for this work and help our leaders think more strategically about how they can lead by example, listen to their employees, have tough conversations and push for actionable change. We’re also in the process of establishing workstreams that support each pillar of our strategy with action plans to ensure we take a whole-of-company approach to addressing our commitments.
Nine months into my role at Beam Suntory, I am excited to be on this journey with our employees and leaders. We have a lot to be proud of with our existing DEI initiatives, and I’m looking forward to seeing where we go from here.
BW: What is one thing you wish people understood better about Diversity & Inclusion?
VR: While I think there are a lot of misconceptions about DEI, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s no longer enough for companies to just care about DEI and to hope for a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse culture. I think 2020 was an inflection point that shifted the focus from saying DEI is important and just “checking a box,” to working intentionally to actively listen, learn and drive actions as individuals and as a collective to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world for everyone. This leads to more honest dialogue that allows for better recognition and appreciation of our differences to create more innovative and effective solutions, thus a more inclusive workplace.
I also think it’s important to note that DEI is often seen as an initiative that sits within one function or area of an organization, and that’s simply not the case. DEI is a business imperative that touches every single individual and facet of an organization, reaching into critical business areas in addition to Human Resources to include supply chain, procurement, brand reputation and marketing strategies. We must all work together and acknowledge the role we must play as individuals and organizations to advance the work of DEI and be the change we want to see in the workplace, our communities, and society.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to work in the distilled spirits industry?
VR: My advice is to build your network and seek allies who can advocate and support you. As a Black woman in this industry, I’ve found that people are most receptive to different perspectives and ideas when there is empathy, understanding, and trust. No one gets anywhere alone and having a strong support network will help your voice be heard even when you’re not in the room and can ultimately help you achieve your goals. Personally, I’ve had the opportunity to be able to grow my network within the Louisville community by serving on several non-profit boards, including Louisville’s Chamber of Commerce, Greater Louisville Inc (GLI), Leadership Louisville, Women Influencing Louisville, Chestnut Street YMCA, and Chairperson of the Fund for the Arts.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Louisville.
VR: That’s a tough one! Growing up in what we affectionately call “The Birthplace of Bourbonism,” I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to experience so much of what Louisville and Kentucky have to offer. My perfect whiskey weekend in Louisville includes either a bourbon tasting and/or distillery tour with my fellow whiskey connoisseur members of Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (KOBBE) or just catching up with close friends on a downtown rooftop patio enjoying any of our brands, whether it’s Maker’s 46 or Hibiki Harmony Japanese Whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Beam-Suntory