BT Bits: Unlikely Paths to Success

As spring lies just around the corner, waves of established firms are coming to campuses to begin their early recruiting efforts. With heightening enthusiasm for these early initiative programs and pre-internship opportunities, it is easy to get sucked into believing that there is only one path to your dream job. However, success isn’t always so straightforward. Here are a few of today’s most prominent leaders in business who got off to an unlikely start.

Kat Cole

Kat Cole, President of Focus Brands and COO of its subsidiary brand Cinnabon, never expected to be a leading woman in business by age 32. When she was in college, studying engineering at the University of North Florida, she began working as a waitress part time at Hooters. By the end of her first year, she had covered nearly every position from cook to manager. She continued to seek new opportunities within the company as the business expanded. She began playing a vital role in training new employees and managing new locations, and soon was traveling all over the world to open new restaurants. While serving as Vice President of the company, she oversaw the growth of Hooters from approximately 100 locations with $300 million in revenue to 500 locations in 33 countries with $1 billion in revenue. 

Pete Cashmore

When Pete Cashmore was recovering from an appendectomy at age 13, he discovered his passion for a new emerging medium: blogs. In order to pass the time, he honed his writing skills by penning articles and submitting them to well-known online publications. As he became familiar with the digital media landscape, he saw a lack of new sources dedicated to the “Connected Generation,” those who have grown up using the internet for entertainment and news. In 2005, Cashmore launched Mashable from his parents’ house in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He envisioned it as a news source that covers the latest tech advancements and trends in the start-up world. With few resources at first, Cashmore had to produce content himself, often authoring over 10 articles a day. But Mashable has come to become an Internet giant, with 19 million social media followers and logs 35 million unique visitors each month. 

Jerry Greenfield

In 1977, Jerry Greenfield had just unsuccessfully applied to medical school; Ben Cohen was stuck cycling through various jobs in menial labor. The two were friends in high school, and they decided to enter the food industry together. Initially, the pair aimed to start a bagel company, but the cost of equipment made the project infeasible. So they shifted their attention to ice cream. After taking a five dollar correspondence course in ice-cream making at Penn State – the cost of which they split – they opened their first ice cream shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont. However, Cohen suffered from anosmia (resulting in the loss of smell and partial loss of taste) and struggled to distinguish flavors. To compensate for this impairment, he added large chunks of ingredients to their ice cream, leading to the famous Ben & Jerry’s texture. Their ice cream shop became extremely popular and today, the company has over 500 franchises and generates over $132 million in annual revenue. 


Kavita Shukla

When Kavita Shukla was only 12 years old, she swallowed some unsafe tap water while visiting her grandmother in India. Though she expected to be ill for a few days after the incident, a cup of her grandmother’s homebrewed tea successfully warded away the illness. After this remarkable occurrence, Shukla spent several years conducting experiments and found that the spices in her grandmother’s tea had anti-microbial properties. She came up with the idea of infusing the key spices into paper that would keep food fresh. Her product, FreshPaper, is now sold in groceries nationwide and in more than 35 countries. Shukla herself has been featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 for her efforts and continues to focus on growing her company. 

Christina Wallace

Before entrepreneurship, Christina Wallace found success in the performing arts. As an undergraduate, she majored in Mathematics and Theater Studies at Emory University, and served as a theater director and arts administrator at the Metropolitan Opera. After graduating Harvard Business School, she created her own start-up, Quincy Apparel, an e-commerce site that offered semi-custom clothes for young women. Within two years, the company went under. Undeterred, Wallace founded BridgeUp:STEM, an education start-up inside the American Museum of Natural History that teaches computer science to inspire young children. Today, she works as a co-host for a Forbes podcast, The Limit Does Not Exist, which focuses on the intersection between STEM and creativity, and serves as the Vice President at the venture capital firm Bionic Solution.