Janelle Panebianco is a superwoman.
As a wife and mother of two who holds down a demanding career, she’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of a superhero.
A public relations executive who has worked on well-known brands throughout her career, such as McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson, and Home Depot, Panebianco, admitted that her work touched her most during the last couple of years when she guided Mars, Inc. in changing the name of Uncle Ben’s, the brand famous for parboiled rice, to Ben’s Original.
“I led the rebrand of Uncle Ben’s,” she said. “I’ve worked on beauty and other brands, but to work on something where now I am speaking to people who look like me. That was super impactful. We changed the name and the visual brand logo. We also made a systematic impact, donating to charities where we were accessing people of color.”
In addition, Panebianco, who then held the role of vice president of client experience at Weber Shandwick, a leading global public relations company, led the way on a TRESemme campaign that specifically targeted Black women.
This came after the haircare company faced a backlash of protests in South Africa in 2020 due to an advertisement characterizing Black hair as “frizzy and dull” and European hair as “normal.”
“TRESemme wasn’t targeting us,” she said. “I worked on campaigns that specifically targeted Black women. With the Crown Act, (which prohibits race-based hair discrimination in the U.S,) and women wearing their natural hair, being part of the conversation was important. Those two specific opportunities for me felt very defining.”
For Panebianco, those projects opened the door for her next career move. Now, she’s the senior director of external communications for Papa Johns International, Inc. in Atlanta, Ga.
“When they approached me with the opportunity, knowing their history, it showcased their focus on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion),” she said, adding that the company encouraged her to “bring her own flavor to the table,” and her true self to work every day.
The pizza chain had faced challenges in 2018 when its founder and then chairman, John Schnatter, used a racial slur during a phone conference.
Schnatter later resigned as chairman, and the company has since made strides in DEI.
“I felt Papa Johns needed someone with deep experience working with iconic consumer brands,” said Madeline Chadwick, the company’s senior vice president of communications and corporate affairs. “We are a pizza company. Everyone loves pizza! There is so much opportunity for us to build more love for our brand, which will come from better awareness of our menu and product innovations (and) becoming more culturally relevant.”
Panebianco said that although the company had faced challenges, it took a look in the mirror, thought about its adversity and took a big step forward.
“As a Black woman, I see it as a growth company,” Panebianco said, adding that Papa Johns offers its employees scholarships, including money for graduate degrees.
“I want to show people who look like me that this is a brand that celebrates them.”
In addition to Panebianco’s experience for her role, Chadwick called her the “ultimate team player.”
“She has done an incredible job of building relationships across the organization, (helping) our team further our goals,” Chadwick said. “She’s become a trusted partner to so many, which has resulted in the team being able to move work that we are really proud of forward. She’s also challenged our agency partners to be more creative and results-driven, holding everyone to high standards.”
Born to Haitian immigrant parents, Panebianco, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from the University at Albany, SUNY, learned the tenets of hard work early.
“There’s a lot of pressure — since you are the first generation born here and everything done is for the first time with you, and you had better get it right,” she said. “School was first, and then came everything else. My grandparents were a strong presence in my life, and making them and my parents proud was important.”
Her mother immigrated to the U.S. as a child, while her father moved to the States later in life.
“It was an interesting balance between my parents,” she said.
“My dad was more strict. I think it’s because he came here later in life. My mom came to America when she was 8 years old. I think it gave her a better grasp of American culture.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Panebianco fondly looks back on her childhood.
“Being so close to the culture that influenced my parents, I’m grateful because it made me who I am today,” she said, adding that she keeps the principles of her upbringing.
To her that means, “How are you showing up to people? Are you coming off as a well-educated, well-spoken, thoughtful human being? These things are of the utmost importance to me and something that I keep with me every day and that I pass on to my children.”
Janelle and her husband, Vito Panebianco, have been married for 11 years. They met in New York City while working in the same building in their 20s. They have two sons, Ethan, 9, and Carter, 6. The family lives in Atlanta.
Vito is Italian American. Although Janelle’s parents didn’t have a problem with his ethnicity, they wanted to ensure that he had a plan for his and Janelle’s future, as he didn’t have a college degree.
“Vito had a really good plan,” Janelle said, adding that he owns a successful logistics company. “He talked to my parents and convinced them that he was a very focused person.”
Vito calls his wife a confident, clear-minded executive.
“She’s able to dream big and make it happen,” he said. “She’s aggressive but charming at the same time. She doesn’t take no for an answer and always finds a way to make her goal happen.”
Janelle’s mother, Nyrva Andrews, echoed Vitto’s comment, explaining that her daughter’s drive started early.
“Janelle was named student of the month in first grade, and when she was not named the next month again, she cried,” her mother said. “She didn’t understand that she could only be named once. That’s how focused she was on her goals. I’m so proud of her professional success, though I expected no less from her.”
As important as her business success is to her, Janelle’s family is at the top of her list.
She rises around 5:30 a.m. and her first order of the day is getting her children off to school by 7 a.m.
“We take our time in the mornings to chat about the day. I affirm them every day,” she said. She kisses them, tells them that they are excellent, and sends them on their way.
“We try as much as we can to have dinner together. There are nights when we can’t get it done,” she said, adding that she makes time for each of her boys and her husband individually.
“My mother told me, ‘You will learn to survive on fumes,” Panebianco said. “You will also learn that life is a complete juggling act. You are always juggling many balls in the air; at some point, you learn which ones are rubber and which ones are glass. Sometimes work is glass, sometimes family is glass. It changes.”
Although life can be a balancing act, Janelle reminds herself that she’s doing her best.
“I couldn’t do it without the village,” she said. That includes her mother; her nanny, who picks her sons up from school and take them to their activities; and her siblings, who all help her from time to time.
Janelle knows she’s lucky when she looks at her family. Her motto is that nothing just happens.
“I believe that everything we go through, we are supposed to,” she said. “What am I supposed to be learning right now. What am I supposed to be getting.”
Nicole Major is the publisher and CEO of Pink Butterfly Press LLC. She has written professionally for more than two decades for various publications, including The Fairfield Daily Ledger, The Jacksonville Business Journal, and The Rock Hill Herald. She has written internationally for PC World Egypt, The Middle East Times, and Am Cham Egypt's Business Monthly Magazine.
May 18, 2022 at 7:24 pm
What a phenomenal and aspirational woman!
May 22, 2022 at 2:36 pm
She truly is. It was such a pleasure writing about her.