Throughout a long career in the beauty industry, Debra Penzone couldn’t help but reflect on what beauty really means — and where it really comes from. Now, she’s on a mission to help others connect with themselves on a deeper level and go beyond beauty. She defines it as being “all in.”
“It’s about being aware of the world around you, being in tune with the present, prepared to experience even the smallest moments — moments that might otherwise pass you by — because these are often the ones that offer the greatest joy. If you’re too consumed with the worries of yesterday, of what will happen tomorrow, you’ll miss the beauty of life.”
It sounds like fortune-cookie philosophy, like words of wisdom found on a “daily inspiration” desk calendar. But this is how Debra Penzone, president and CEO of Penzone Salons + Spas and owner of LIT Life + Yoga responds when you ask her to talk about wellness. Where others might reply with something about a balanced diet or by rattling off their favorite sweat-session spots, Debbie leans into introspection. And you can tell that she means it.
It may not be what you’d expect from the owner of Columbus’ premier family of salons. But then again, Debbie isn’t simply a successful business owner; she’s a woman on a mission to bring mindful living and even a little peace and love to her community and beyond.
Passion grows early
Debbie grew up in Springfield, Ohio, with five brothers and a sister in a home that valued doing what you love. “It was ingrained in me from a young age that going to work on Monday should feel like going to Disneyland,” Debbie says. “Sure, that’s not always the case, but it’s something to strive for.”
Before she even entered high school, Debbie was perming her brothers’ hair and spending slumber parties cutting bangs for her girlfriends. Despite her passion for making others look great, she didn’t always feel beautiful. In the sixth grade, Debbie was diagnosed with severe eczema, a condition that required she wear bandages over much of her body and face.
“I got made fun of almost immediately,” she says. “It was crazy to me how my whole group of friends was like, ‘See ya’ overnight.” The once-popular, outgoing Debbie spent the rest of middle school eating lunch alone — and learning that beauty goes well beyond hair and makeup.
“That outer shell doesn’t tell the complete story,” she says. “You have to have the courage to face the day. And that beauty comes from inside.” It wasn’t the conventional path for girls in Debbie’s community in the 1980s, but with the encouragement of her parents, Richard and Mary Beth Miller, Debbie decided to attend Ohio State School of Cosmetology after graduation.
“I was very blessed with loving and caring parents who supported me always and in everything,” she says. “My dad raised us always by saying, ‘Do what you love and love what you do.’ He didn’t come from much, but he always came back to that.” But while training in Columbus, Debbie found that not everyone offered such positive energy. One instructor singled Debbie out, telling her she “wasn’t Penzone material.”
Founded in 1969 by Charles Penzone with a $500 bank loan, Penzone salons were, by the mid-90s, unlike anything else in the Midwest. Their stylists used the Vidal Sassoon technique. They offered $150 gift cards. They had a call center to help guests answer questions and deal with problems. And they called themselves something totally different, too: a day spa.
“(My instructor) said, ‘Don’t even bother interviewing there; you belong in a small salon,’ ” Debbie recalls. “It’s awful how one person can crush you, and you can lose all confidence in yourself. Up to that point, I had no idea.” Upon completing her degree, Debbie did end up in a small salon. She felt adrift. But then a close friend — “my first real mentor,” Debbie says — managed to get her an interview at the salon with which she’d one day share a name.
“She said, ‘I did not get you a job; I got you an interview. You have to earn it. You have to do the rest, Debbie,’ ” she recalls. The tough-love encouragement worked, and in 1987 Debbie joined the Penzone family. She dove in head-first, taking advantage of the hands-on education offered to all associates, another unique Penzone perk.
“I didn’t take a thing for granted; I signed up for every class,” she says. “I knew what it was like on the other side, where I had come from, and I felt very fortunate and blessed to have those opportunities.” She even took the renowned Dale Carnegie public speaking class to become more comfortable speaking with her clients from behind the chair. “I wasn’t just cutting hair,” she says. “I was building a career.”
Debbie moved through the ranks working as a senior director and then as the salon’s training director and creative director. And then she fell in love: Debbie and Charles wed in 1998. Gradually, Debbie transitioned to a more behind-the-scenes role in the office and a more active role in the community.
She served as the president of the Childhood League Center and raised money for causes close to her heart. Twice she was honored with the American Cancer Society’s Volunteer of the Year award for helping organize the Look Good Feel Better program which teaches beauty and skin care techniques to cancer patients.
“It was really important, really powerful, for me to get out and do stuff in the community,” she says. “I learned and experienced so much, and I realized I could bring those experiences back to the salon; we could do more than just cut hair and paint nails. We could really change lives and help people.”
But as she became the face of the salon alongside Charles, Debbie felt as though people weren’t really seeing the real her. “There’s this perception of, ‘Oh, you have all this stuff; you have everything.’ But I’ve come to find that it’s not about the stuff,” she says. When her father lost his battle with cancer Debbie says, “At that moment, I really needed to connect deep within my soul; I needed to find myself,” she says. “How do you breathe again (after a loss)? How do you go on?”
A longtime fitness enthusiast, Debbie had been attending classes at Yoga on High and other local studios for years. But in her grief, she immersed herself in her practice. When Jasmine Grace from Yoga on High approached her about a studio-sponsored trip to India, Debbie opted instead for the studio’s 200-hour teacher-training program. She received her first teaching certification in 2015.
“I never had planned on (becoming a teacher); I just wanted to help myself,” she says. “It was a lifeline for me. So many people have said that yoga has saved them. But truly, learning how to use my body as a tool to calm myself, breathe, let go of stress and anxiety and find that inner peace … nothing and nobody can take that away.”
After completing her 200 hours, she turned her focus to meditation, even heading to Southern California to train with world-renowned Ayurveda advocate Deepak Chopra. “There is nothing that can compare to his energy,” Debbie says. “Working with him brought all of this to life. You really start to realize that, yes, being present, being mindful makes a huge difference in your life.”
Around the same time, she realized food can be more than fuel for your body; it can be medicine, too. She gave veganism a go, and it stuck. Then, she had a concern for limiting the salons’ carbon footprint, treating Mother Earth with respect at home and at her salons. To her salon-goers’ delight, she pushed for the use of more organic, natural and vegan products.
“I came full-circle to this place where I’m concerned with holistic living, holistic beauty,” she explains. “I felt like it was such a cool experience to start walking in that truth.” Over time, Debbie realized the people in her inner circle and her associates could benefit from a bit of inner peace, too.
“I knew I had to share this,” she says. “Think about hairdressers: they spend hours a day helping others and hearing about others’ troubles, and they can end up taking on that energy. I wanted to help our team deal with this in a healthy way.”
It only made sense to bring her newfound truth to her brands. Her vision: Help the whole person; go beyond beauty. “I want to empower our team and our community,” Debbie says.
In May, Penzone debuted a new headquarters in Dublin — the 14,000-square-foot PENZONE Salon + Spa (“Charles” was dropped to reflect Debbie’s role in shaping the brand’s future). The new space and the overall brand, which includes the five other PENZONE locations, emulate Debbie’s view of all-encompassing wellness.
Guests can try an Ayurvedic massage treatment or head to the salon’s Social Room for a coffee, cocktail or bite from Little Kitchen Truck’s plant-heavy menu. Guests who need to hit reset from the weekend can enjoy a lineup of juices from & Juice Co. In the Beauty Zone, guests looking for a quick refresh can get a blowout or relax in a communal setting with a skin treatment. The Eminence line offers organic and biodynamic products free of parabens, animal by-products and other harmful ingredients and chemicals.
This spring, Debbie launched the Evenings of Enlightenment program at the salon where associates and community members can learn from guest speakers on health-focused topics.
“You know, for 50 years, Penzone has been doing things differently,” Debbie says. “Our new concept is about so much more than beauty; now, we’re taking care of the whole person: their mind, body and life from the outside in and the inside out. After all, skin glows from within.”
Her next chapter
When Debbie and Charles first made plans to open Royal Rhino Club — a modern-meets-old-school barbershop — Italian Village was just earning its up-and-coming reputation. Today, with hip restaurants, brewpubs and modern apartments, the neighborhood is giving the Short North a run for its money.
“We were spending so much time down in Italian Village, and we had no idea how great it was down there,” Debbie says. She’d been mulling over ideas for sharing her passion for yoga at the salons when her realtor suggested they check out an empty building in the neighborhood.
“It was something so magical; I felt something. I get choked up thinking about it even now,” Debbie says of walking through the space. “My realtor said, ‘You know, this could be a yoga studio,’ and Chuck looked over at me … I had never dreamed I could or would do that.” But the timing was right and there was a demand for something different than the same-old yoga studio.
Debbie let the word spread organically, and through her own LLC opened LIT Life + Yoga in December 2017. “I wanted it to be a grassroots effort,” she says. “I wanted it to come from a true, authentic place, to grow in the Italian Village community first.”
The instructors, called Luminaires, hail from studios across Central Ohio. Most notably, Debbie tapped Babajide Ogunmola — one of Columbus’ best-known instructors — to be the studio’s creative director. “I am so glad that we can give him a career doing what he loves where he lives,” Debbie says, noting that many yoga instructors find themselves working multiple jobs at several studios. “I’m hoping this can grow as a model for other places in the community.”
Debbie also created the LIT LOVE Life + Yoga fund at the Columbus Foundation, which is funded in part by donation-based classes like the studio’s Open Mat session, a pay-what-you-can class. “I love the vibe they have there; it’s all-inclusive,” Debbie says. “And that’s really what I’ve gotten from yoga: there’s no right, there’s no wrong, there’s no judgement. And that’s really where we want to take the salons, too. We’re not just for one time or person.”
What’s up next? She wants to bring this same attitude to the burbs, promising LIT’s luminaries will visit her salons to share their “good vibes” with the community there, too.
“We can all stand to learn about what author Dr. Brené Brown calls ‘wholehearted living.’ For me, it’s about finding meaning in every moment, not just the big ones you wait a lifetime for,” Debbie says. “Yesterday, I reached out and grabbed my mom’s hand for a moment; we had a connection. These are the moments that get me through the day, that build on the week, the month, the year. All the layers matter.”
Debbie’s dad once told her that a successful life can be defined by doing what you love. She’s made it her mission to celebrate that each day. “You have the power to change the world around you,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you?”