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Interview Spotlight: Kat Cole, President and CEO of Cinnabon

By George Vasilakis - Fordham Preparatory

This is an account based on Kat Cole’s speech at the NGV #FundMyPassion NYC Summit on November 7th, 2015. It deals with Kat Cole’s remarkable life story, lessons she has learned, and advice she gave to the NextGenVest members in attendance at the summit.

Early Life

Kat Cole is a hard worker. She always has been. She went from living with an alcoholic father and supporting her two siblings by working at Hooters to being the group president of Focus Brands, a company that brought in three billion dollars of revenue last year. Kat was business savvy at an early age, turning a realization about her family into a business lesson. At 9 years old, when her Mom told her that they were leaving her father, Kat responded, "What took you so long?”. Kat saw that she (the customer) knew what was right for the family (or company) quicker than her mother (the president, CEO, etc.) did. This taught her that in business, it's necessary for the leader to stay close to the action, so if anything is wrong it can be quickly remedied. At the age of 17, Kat became a hostess at Hooters, and at 18 she became a waitress. She originally thought waitressing at Hooters would be a 'pit stop' on the way to her plan of being a chemical engineer, but she found her passion in business. Waiting tables turned into managing the branch, a feat Kat accomplished by doing any job that needed to be done around the restaurant. She picked up various duties, like bartending or cooking, to help out the company. By doing this, she became an expert on the day-to-day operations of the company, which gave herself the opportunity to advance.

Saying Yes and Figuring it Out

At the age of 19, she was asked to go to Sydney to open up the first Hooters in Australia. Despite not having a passport, never having flown before, and rarely ever leaving Jacksonville, she said she would do it. This is a perfect example for one of Kat's quotes on proactivity and determination: “If you want to do something big, even if you don’t know how to do it, it's okay to take the leap, ONLY if you have the ‘hustle muscle' to do it". (Hustle muscle is a term Kat affectionately uses to refer to her perseverance, drive, and effort). Kat took the leap, and after successfully opening the Sydney restaurant, she was invited to open more new locations. By investing her time and saying yes, she created and funded a passion she never knew she had. She enabled her newfound passion by being open to new opportunities, opening doors for herself,  and just figuring things out on the fly with her 'hustle muscle'.

Relationships

While opening restaurants internationally and meeting tons of people, Kat learned a valuable lesson on relationships. By helping others launch their restaurants and giving to them, they were willing to help her out later on in life. This is what she refers to as 'trading on trust'. She maintains that relationships and connections are another form of currency in the business world.

Money Mistakes and Diversification

Kat continued to open restaurants internationally, and her efforts were noticed by corporate, where she was offered a job. She accepted, and moved to Atlanta to continue on with her advancing career. For the first few years in Atlanta, Kat was not always the perfect example of a businesswoman that she is today. She ran into trouble managing her money after she shifted from waitressing to having a corporate job, since she couldn't just pick up another shift to make some extra money. Kat learned her financial skills through making mistakes. These mistakes and times when she was short on money made her realize that she always wanted to have multiple revenue sources. Kat advised the members in attendance to branch out financially, and figure out other revenue streams as soon and as often as they possibly could, so they wouldn't ever completely rely on a single source of income. Kat diversified her income streams. This gave her some extra money, which she put towards her passions: various philanthropy efforts, such as using education to empower people and help them become self-sufficient.

Promotions and Self-Evaluation

Kat was promoted again, and at only 26 years old, she became the vice-president of Hooters. She helped the company grow and bring in a billion dollars of revenue. After building the company up, she sold it into private equity and became the CEO of Cinnabon, whose sales she tripled from half a billion dollars to one and a half billion. Kat was then given yet another promotion (see a pattern here?) , to her current position as  the group president of Focus Brands, Cinnabon's parent company. This success brought lots of media attention to her, which she used to highlight the small businesses she was invested in. Kat saw this attention as an addition to what she brought to the startups she invested: she could offer not only money, but also exposure and media attention to them. Kat sees a common theme in how she funded her various passions: she was always aware of her self-worth and what strengths and weaknesses she brought. This self-awareness is something she thinks is very important for students to learn as they progress through their careers and life in general.

Lessons

Kat had quite a few lessons to give to the NextGenVest members at the summit. Like most of her lessons, they were applicable not just to business, but to life in general.

Small Enough to Change, Big Enough to Matter

She used the example of a charity trip she took in Eastern Africa to illustrate a point about making an impact. She told how she and her friends were driving through three villages, a small, a medium, and a large sized one (in that order). When they got to the small village, Kat and her friends saw a dying woman and her infant child. They passed by the woman and her child to continue on their way to the medium sized village. While this sounds heartless, she said she had a good reason to continue on: if she stopped and helped the woman, she would use up her little time, money, and resources on just two people in the smaller village, and she wouldn't be able to go make a larger impact on more people's lives in the medium sized village. Kat realized that by making the decision to help those two people in the small village, she was consciously not helping many more people in the medium village. She told the students in attendance "Remember, for the rest of your life, every choice to do something is a choice to not do something else". Kat was concerned on optimizing the return on her effort and making the largest impact possible. She applies this same thinking in her business pursuits. So she headed onwards to the next village. At the medium village, one of her friends asked why they weren't going to the largest village if they wanted to make the biggest impact. They didn't head on to the second village because as a group of only a few people with relatively limited resources, they wouldn't have been able to make a meaningful impact on a village of 5,000. The main lesson in this was to 'focus your time on things that are small enough to change, but big enough to matter'. Kat urged us to think of this in all aspects of our life, whether business, family, social, or personal. This, along with her lesson on knowing your self-worth, is great advice on how to be the absolutely most efficient and impactful you can possibly be. Kat explained the deal they made with the medium-sized village: Kat and her friends would finance water works and agricultural education for the village if the villagers would stop growing narcotic drugs on 1/3 of their fields and if they wouldn't use the water from the projects to grow the narcotic plants. When Kat returned to the village 18 months later, she saw that the villagers had destroyed more of the drugs than they originally promised, and had begun to grow tons of other foods for their village. Most importantly, Kat saw that people from the nearby large and small villages had come to the middle village to learn farming techniques and such. This showed that by focusing on the right thing, you can impact everything, small, medium, or large. Kat advised students to seek out as many different situations possible, live in as many places as possible, meet as many people as possible, and just overall broaden your horizons. Just because you learned something in a specific situation, it doesn't mean that lesson is only applicable there (Kat learned about prioritization while doing charity work and carried it over to her business).

Prioritization

Kat's final lesson about funding her passion also came from Eastern Africa. When one of her friends asked a villager what his priorities were, the villager said his first priority was water. When asked about his other priorities, the villager laughed. Water was his first and only priority. This extreme prioritization helped Kat to see what was really important in her life, and therefore fund her true passions with her time, effort, and money. Kat is also always re-evaluating her life and her priorities, to stay clear on what really matters to her.