Kat Cole: How I Went From Living on $10/Week To The President of Cinnabon

Kat Cole

Kat Cole shares her story:

“When I was nine, my mother, siblings, and I left my alcoholic dad and went out on our own. [My mother] worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, feeding us on a food budget of $10/week for three years.

My mom was really an example to me. She was courageous, gritty, resourceful, entrepreneurial, and could do a lot with a dime. So, that colored my beliefs and made me want to work at a very young age.

From waitressing at Hooters, working in the mall, and cleaning gym equipment, work was a way out of that situation. It was freedom. And in that early work journey, I was often either elected to leadership positions or asked to take on leadership positions. It felt quite natural because I had been in a leadership role with my sisters for many years.”

Q: Later, when you were admitted into college, you dropped out to work at Hooters. Why?

“So I started at Hooters in high school when I was a junior. I was the first person in my family to get into college, majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. My plan was to get that degree and then go to law school.

Hooters was a way for me to pay for my education. I was a hostess, waitress, bartender, and trainer, where I taught new employees. This is all in my first two years there. So, even though I was going to college, I was making the most, working in the restaurant.

I dropped out because Hooters had asked me to be a part of international training teams, travel around the world, and open franchises. At 19, I was in Australia, Central America, and different states in the US, traveling, being elevated professionally, and taking on a ton of responsibility.

But that meant I was also never in school, so I was failing, and through my actions, I had already made my choice. This is where I'm spending my time. These are the opportunities right in front of me that feel more unique and more important than going to class.

So I meet with my counselor, and she says, ‘There is a way to make up your classes, but you're not only going to have to stop traveling, you won't even be able to work as much.’

I could not financially afford to stop working. So, I dropped out and took a corporate job at Hooters. I just believed there would be more opportunity. I moved to Atlanta and started working in the corporate office. As the company grew, I grew. Every 18 to 24 months, I was promoted to a new management role. By the time I was 26, I was one of the vice presidents of the company, doing around $800 million in revenue. I didn't know anyone in my network who was my age, whether they had been to college or not.

However, I did realize there were things I missed: the language of finance, the language of business and accounting, and the mentorship of business people who were outside of the restaurant industry. So I went back to get my MBA without a bachelor's degree.”

Q: How did you get your MBA without a bachelor's degree?

“I had a mentor who took a great interest in me. She was a recruiter and still is a dear friend today. She's like, ‘Look, if you want to stay in the restaurant industry, you're going to have no problem getting any job you want. But if you ever want to go anywhere else, you are not going to get past their HR filter. You're a child of a single parent, alcoholic father, college dropout who's worked at Hooters her whole life.’

I didn't like the idea of doors being shut. She said, ‘I know someone who's a CEO who got their masters without a bachelor’s. It's not easy, and it's rare, but it's possible.’

And that's all I needed to hear that it was possible. I started calling all the business schools that had executive MBA programs with locations in Atlanta and was accepted into multiple MBA programs. They told me I had to take the GMAT very quickly. So I took the GMAT and had to get a higher-than-typical passing score, which I did, and that was it.

I started at Georgia State University, Robinson College of Business in 2008 and graduated in December of 2010. Two months after I had started as president of Cinnabon.”

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