Executive Profile with Kat Cole
BT (Betty Liu): I’ve been reading about your biography and you have and background for someone working in business. Could you tell me more about where you started out and what inspired you to work in business?
Kat Cole: I grew up with a single parent: an alcoholic father. I’m the oldest of three girls, and I helped to raise my sisters. My mom left my father when I was nine, and I started working in malls when I was fifteen. At the age of seventeen, I became a hostess at Hooters. I wasn’t ever inspired to work in the industry. I was like any person in high school who was just looking for a god job. Once I turned eighteen my senior year, I could be a waitress, which provided me with the flexibility to make a lot of money.
So, that’s it. It’s really that simple. It was one of my early jobs. I was never inspired to be in the industry, it just seemed like the thing to do. A lot of people who were in high school worked in restaurants, from fast food to coffee shops, to casual dining restaurants. That was a pretty normal thing. So I did it.
I always thought I would leave the restaurant once I graduated college. But what ended up happening, is that Hooters started to grow and open restaurants around the country, and around the world, and because I had learned how to work every job in the restaurant, I was qualified to help train new employees in my own store, and was then asked to train employees in new stores that were opening. That’s what led to me going to Australia when I was 19, to help open the first Hooter’s franchise. And that turned into something that I had a passion for, and I realized that I was good at entering new markets, and training employees, and getting the restaurants open. I was opening stores in Australia and Central America. I opened the first one in Central America, the first in South America, and the first store in Canada. And I became part of these training teams that led to a corporate career in training, and then there’s a lot more from there, but that’s essentially how it became a career.
BT: I was hoping to get your perspective on how it felt to go through this process, of going from waitressing to training employees and opening a store, then going to where you are now. How do you feel about all that you’ve accomplished in this period of time?
KC: You know, it doesn't feel necessarily like accomplishments. It feels like I was always doing the things I loved, I was paying attention to the things I was good at. I happened to join a growing company—Hooters, and of course, when you join a growing company, there are opportunities because they need people. And they need people for increasingly expansive roles. And yes, they hire some people from the outside, but they need a lot of people from the inside. So, the way I went from employee—waiting my own tables—to training new employees, and then traveling to train new employees made me feel very proud.
I was proud because if you were chosen to do that, one: you know you’re chosen. Not everyone gets to do that, just a few employees out of the company. And so, it makes you proud, and you get to see that you are teaching people skills that help them have a good job, and that makes you proud. And when I was asked to interview for a corporate job, that made me incredibly proud and grateful. And I got to train other people, and develop other people, and become an executive at 26, and then help to sell the company to private equity. We did a lot, we bought an airline, we sold an airline. We expanded to 33 countries. As you can imagine, as a person in their twenties, that was super cool to be a part of. Regardless of the fact that it was Hooters, and people had their opinions about that, I loved it, and was so grateful for it. When I was able to become president of Cinnabon at 32, I had the same feeling. So if the question is “how did it feel?”, it made me feel incredibly proud, and I was incredibly grateful. At no point did it feel like an accomplishment, because it felt like one giant journey.
BT: So with this journey, what do you think were some of the most difficult challenges that you’ve had to face?
KC: In the early days, I was 20 years old, and helping to open franchises around the world. So, I had to deal with all the challenges that would naturally come with being young, but having to lead others that are often older. Needing to open a business that is unknown in a market or a country that might not be used to that concept was also incredibly difficult. You know, all of those were very tactical challenges that I had to learn to deal with.
I learned to build trust very quickly, across all the different teams that I had a chance to work with. Then, when I moved into the corporate setting, being very young, I had to learn that there are certain behaviors that you may not realize that you have, that are reminding everyone that you are young. And there’s nothing wrong with being young, there’s the benefit of having a youthful perspective, but you also have to be taken seriously. If you have nonverbal body language, or habits, or speaking styles that are not common in the executive ranks, it’s something that you could easily work on and address, but those are challenges typically for someone who works with much older peers, these are challenges that those people need to, just as I did, work on and overcome. I would say one challenge was having times where I felt that I understood the employee and customer perspective, because I was so recently an employee and young like our consumers, but at the same I having the responsibility of the executive, and considering the entire company’s perspective, not just that of the one group of employees, or one store. And when you make decisions, you’re not always going to make everyone happy. That’s a challenge in business, it’s a challenge in leadership, it's a challenge in politics, so those are natural challenges that you have in management.
I would say that the other challenges have to do with business, not necessarily with being young or female, but to do with the fact that business is highly emotional and personal, because in the business that I have been in, we employ humans and we serve humans. And so, it’s beautiful and complex. And sometimes totally crazy. But when you deal with multiple countries, multiple cultures, different retail channels, everything from the selling cycle to what types of products will work differs greatly, so learning to manage the diversity of the products, and the channels, and the selling strategies, and the stakeholders is an ongoing challenge.
BT: You mentioned a lot of challenges that young people face in business, but what are some of the challenges that you have faced as a woman in business?
KC: It’s hard to say. I always had the mindset that, I’m here for a reason. I’ve not only worked to be here, but the people who have chosen me, hired me, promoted me, also believed in me. So I chose to not think when I walked in the boardroom and was the only woman, I was much younger. I chose not to think about that. Now, I wasn’t so naive, as to think that other people didn’t think about that, and I certainly wasn’t naive enough to think that certain times hat I was treated a certain way because I was either a woman, or young. But, I did not allow that to be in my thinking because sometimes when that ends up in your head, you place that as a reason for certain things that are happening, and that might not be the reason. That’s not productive. But, at the same time, you can’t be naive and think that there aren’t deeply ingrained prejudices and thought patterns and biases that have to do with gender. They’re certainly there. And I can’t undo them in one meeting, or one year, it’s literally been centuries in this case. You have to assume positive intent, but also decide how you want to show up.
However, did I ever face challenges because I’m a woman? Possibly. I chose not to focus on that, but I certainly spent a large amount of my career advocating for diversity and the advancement of women, highlighting the importance of mentoring women in leadership roles, because of all the empirical evidence that showed a gender diverse leadership team produces stronger financial results. Not to mention that culturally, it’s important and effective if you want the best talent, to open yourself up to 100 percent of the population, not 50. So, I spend a lot of time advocating for that because I see that even if it’s not conscious gender discrimination, the reality is that leadership is mostly male. How do they find their next generation of leadership? They look in their informal network, so they actually have to work harder to find great women, until they get enough diversity at the top, so that the informal network works the opposite way. And the women who are also in leadership use their network, which often has a disproportionate number of women, and now you’re getting a more diverse selection pool for opportunities, promotions, and hiring.
BT: So, what traits do you think helped you most? And if you could offer advice to young people looking to break into business, what would they be?
KC: What helped me the most was that, on one side, I really demonstrated humility and curiosity, I was always grateful and respectful and just super curious. Whatever would happen, I would just ask why. And I would spend the time to really learn and understand, I would ask multiple people “why?” to get at a well-rounded version of the reasons behind things. And so humility and curiously really helped me endear myself to my peers and leaders, and to show respect, so that even though I was younger and less experienced, there was a little bit less tension when I came in.
However, humility and curiously alone only make you a student, so on the other hand, I had courage and confidence. I took risks, I would speak up when people were afraid to speak up, or when opinions might be unpopular. And so, the combination of those two things—with humility and curiosity on the one side, and courage and confidence on the other side—helped bring out a well-rounded sense of partnership that helped me stand out.
So my advice to younger people getting into business is to work on those 4 areas, which are part of 2 buckets. Check yourself on a regular basis—are you really demonstrating humility and curiosity? Are you asking questions, are you really letting the feedback from people actually color your behavior and your thinking and it’s obvious that it is, so they want to continue to help you? Are you becoming a student of your industry and of other industries that can help you? Are you hungry for knowledge, and demonstrating to other people that you know you need help, that you know you can't do it on your own? But on the other side—are you really demonstrating courage and confidence? Are you raising your hand to take risks, and not necessarily always expecting to be paid for it?
I mean, if I had a chance to work with the president on a project, I didn’t ask if I was going to be paid more, it was the opportunity to learn from and build a relationship with people who are running the company that was important to me. And there were special projects that when needed, and even though sometimes they were far out of my scope, one thing I never said was “That’s not my job”. Never. Everything was an opportunity to be my job, and what I would tell people who would tell me that was, “Well, then maybe it never will be.” So I really do believe that the key is being curious and getting embedded in projects so that people enjoy having you at the table, so you get help, and learning even if it’s outside of your scope, so you can be better at your current job, and more suited for future opportunities.
So my advice to young people is: don’t spend a bunch of time stressing. Do what you do with diligence. People also ask me, “is it better to find a person that you want to work for, or to find a company culture that you want to work with?” My answer is that both are important, if you find a person who you love, but the company culture is crappy, the reality is that that person is probably not going to be there that long and you’re going to be stuck with there with that person gone, and the culture that’s crappy. On the other hand, you could have a company whose culture is amazing, but you don’t really find a leader what will mentor you, or that you respect. Maybe you can get in that company and find great talent and eventually work with people. But, you really want to find both a person who you can work with that you respect and a culture you believe you can thrive in, or at least be proud of. Start there, and then just pick a path. Just start something. The sooner that you start, the sooner you’ll know if it’s great. And if it’s great, the good news is that you have a great start. And if it’s not, then you can correct, and you’ll be on the right path sooner.
BT: So one of the things that you mentioned was important was risk, and I read that you dropped out of college to work for Hooters full time. When you were making this decision, were you nervous? Afraid? Excited?
KC: You have to realize that when I was making this decision, I was already opening restaurants as a 19 year old. So, I was already traveling around the world opening stores. So it’s not like I just dropped out of college and then thought, “wow I hope I can get a job”. I was already opening stores, but I had no contract. I had no promises. I was still an hourly employee, and I had no offer for a corporate role. I hoped for one, but I had no offer. And the reason that I dropped out of college was because I was failing, because I was traveling so much to open restaurants. It wasn’t like I was doing great, I wasn’t able to make it all work out. If I could have made it all work, I would have stayed. But the reality was that, with traveling and opening franchises, you had to be in those countries for 30 or 40 days at a time. You do that a couple times a year, and there’s no way you can pass school. And certainty there wasn’t the access to internet and technology and things to allow the type of distance learning, that’s available now. And so I was failing and thought that I could go back and double down on working, and make it all up, or I could stay on this path of traveling and opening stores and doing what I loved. And if it didn’t work out, I could go back to school.
So, that’s why I dropped out. It was because I was failing. I was about to be kicked out if I didn’t drop out. But I did eventually go back and get my MBA, and got my master’s without a bachelors. I actually started as the president of Cinnabon a couple of months before I graduated. So school and higher education was important to me, but at the time, I had a compelling alternative, which was the opportunity to continue traveling and opening franchises. The only thing I was nervous about was telling my mom, because she had worked so hard to give us a better life, and I was one of the first people in our family to every get into college. So I was worried about hurting her feelings, and breaking her heart, and she was disappointed, but she was also very proud that I had something that I was passionate about, so it was fine.
BT: What do you find most enjoyable or meaningful about the work that you do?
KC: It’s always been the same thing, it’s about the people that I train and develop, that I get to help succeed in some way. I am able to make a difference for them, to help them see something differently so that they can be more successful, or make a decision that helps them move on, or move up, or take on more. That makes me incredibly proud.
BT: I'm aware that you are active in philanthropy, often going to Rwanda to offer sustainable aid. Why is philanthropy meaningful to you?
KC: It’s meaningful because these are parts of the world where a little bit of effort and a tiny bit of money go very, very, very far. They are also parts of the world where some bad things in the world start. For example, extremism. Why does extremism spread? It’s because you have people who are in not good situations, who are living in extreme poverty, and who would do anything to get out of it. So, helping in these difficult parts of the word is important because I have the capacity to. But it’s also selfish, because problems spread quickly around the world. And it’s also because of high return on effort on the dollar, a little bit goes a long way. So that’s the why. The how is I started doing work in local soup kitchens in Atlanta when I was in my 20’s. And that made me passionate about giving up my time and volunteering, and that slowly grew into other volunteer projects and volunteer leadership projects. And then I was asked by a friend to go to Rwanda, because she interviewed President Kagami, and knew that I was seasoned with these projects involving women, and that they needed help with elevation and education of women. So, I said yes, I went to Rwanda, I worked on projects there, I got involved with the people the culture, and the community, and ever since then I have done a wide range of humanitarian projects and work in Rwanda, in Ethiopia, and now that I’m on the United Nations Global Entrepreneurs Council, I’m working with Syrian refugees in Jordan, in order to help address the refugee crisis.
BT: Finally, you’ve mentioned that this is a giant process. What do you think you will be doing in the future?
KC: I’ll always be doing the same things that I’ve been doing, which is helping people realize that they are capable of more than they know. The question is how does that manifest itself in jobs or roles, or whatever. I think that the way it will manifest itself in the future is I’ll continue to run large organizations or divisions of large organizations, and I will do more and more advising and investing, because my experience is getting diverse enough and global, so I’m really able to add a lot of value to companies at various growth stages. I’ll likely start more formal board work, but still with working with small founders and small organizations that are earlier in their growth curves. I like being in both worlds. I like big commercial, global companies that are established, and that I can help stay relevant, and connect with an ever changing consumer market, but I also very much connect with my tribe, my people, who are mostly entrepreneurs, tech-enabled, so I’ll continue to be a part of that. My husband and I will likely start a business together, so I’m expecting that a bit more of that entrepreneurial streak is likely in my future. So a lot of advising, and helping others be successful, but also building our own thing. And of course, more humanitarian work.