Lindsey Robertson
December 05, 2014 10:32 am

Kat Cole is not your average boss. At only 36-years-old, she has risen from humble beginnings and working her way through school to today being President and COO of one of the most delicious company’s out there: Cinnabon. And p.s. she doesn’t even have a Bachelor’s degree.

Let’s talk about how she did that. The path that Cole carved out for herself is not the norm (is there even a norm anymore?) and her incredibly successful business experience has also resulted in her dropping beautiful crumbs of lady boss wisdom in all of the interviews she gives. We’re very thankful for that.

Cole began working for Hooters at the age of 17, while studying as an engineering major at the University of North Florida. Her remarkable work-ethic at Hooters helped her to stand out from the crowd — she was always picking up slack when needed, coming in early, staying late, covering shifts, stepping up in the kitchen. “If the food didn’t get made, it wouldn’t get delivered, and I wouldn’t get paid, and I couldn’t pay my bills,” Cole told Time. “I did it because I wanted to be helpful . . . but I also did it because I was curious to see if I could do it.” By 19, she was a manager and regional trainer for the brand and received the offer to help expand the company internationally; by 25 she was the company’s vice president. In those years she also dropped out of college (because she had so much going on professionally) and took her first plane trip.

In the process she had to deal with your standard workplace sexism and people wrongly assuming her success was not because of her brains.  “What’s sad about this is that you have so few examples of women moving up, so the only way to fill in the gaps is filth,” she told Time. But Cole’s mantra has been steadfast and helped her get to where she is today: “Don’t get sucked into the vortex of negative vibes.”

Despite the fact that she didn’t have a college degree, she was accepted into an MBA program—an extremely rare feat—after getting 10 letters of recommendation from big name CEOs (think Ted Turner).

Cole’s shrewdness and savvy inspired other companies to seek her out, and in 2010, after interviewing extensively, Cole accepted a position as CEO of Cinnabon. In her four years at the company, Cole has helped the company reach over $1 billion in global product sales.

Cole has gotten to this point on her own terms. Some of her wisdom gems: “I’ve learned to question success a lot more than failure.” And, “I learned to make sure I take the full authority of my role.” Writing those on our mental chalkboard.

As for her advice on how to move up within a company? It’s rock solid. She told the New York Times that when young, ambitious people ask how to succeed, she gives them this advice: ”

The most inspiring aspect of Cole’s story is not just that she is a woman competing in a male-dominated field, but that she came from such humble beginnings. What began as a job to make ends meet turned into a full-fledged career, all because Cole followed leads, and used her smarts and her drive consistently, without fail. She made people sit up and take notice of what she could do, and she always wanted to learn more. Cole also never shied away from taking risks. “I have an intense belief that I can do anything (sometimes more than I should), always believing I can do ‘more than I know,’ so I take chances,” she’s said.

And when it comes to those scary/exciting opportunities that life throws at you? Cole tells Fast Company that her advice in those situations is to not overthink things, or take weeks to mull it over. Get out of your head and take a chance. “Whenever I’m offered an opportunity, there’s no doubt there is that instant natural reaction (to not think she’s ready),” Cole says. But she adds, “I don’t allow it to have any additional space in my mind.”

Here’s to successful, intelligent women like Kat Cole who are constantly inspiring us to never underestimate what possibilities are out there! As Cole’s mother likes to say, “Don’t ever forget where you came from, but don’t you dare let it define you.”

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