Kat Cole is irrepressible. Currently a group president at food conglomerate Focus Brands, the 37-year-old exec has been heading up billion-dollar businesses since she was just 32, when she took the reins at Cinnabon. That's after she rose the corporate ranks at Hooters and managed to get an MBA without ever finishing college—no small feat.
With her humble beginnings and killer work ethic, Cole has a lot in common with Joy Mangano, the real-life heroine that Jennifer Lawrence portrays in the movie Joy , out Christmas Day. Mangano invented the Miracle Mop, a product that went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Like Cole, Mangano had been working since she was a teenager. Yet despite the tough hand she'd been dealt, Mangano, a single mom of three, proved that major wealth and cred await those with brains, grit, and a healthy dose of American hustle.
Lenny talked to Kat Cole about how she went from a Hooters girl in bright orange hot pants to Cinnabon president in just over a decade, how tough circumstances ultimately bolstered her leadership skills, and the importance of developing what she calls a #hustlemuscle.
Lenny: Let's start at the beginning. Where did you grow up? What was your family like?
Kat Cole: I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and was raised by a single parent. I had a father who was a really great, sweet man but he was an alcoholic. So when I was nine, we left. I was the oldest of three girls, so I was helping my mom take care of my sisters.
Lenny: When did you start working?
KC: I had to start working early because if I wanted anything, I had to pay for it. Our food budget was $10 a week for three years. It was not 1955. It was the '80s! People would say, "You poor thing, you had to grow up so fast." On the one hand, yes, it's sad, but when I think about everything I learned from those jobs, there's no question that it worked out incredibly well for me.
Lenny: Did you know what you wanted to do with your career from a young age? Or did you just take the opportunities that came up along the way?
KC: I knew I wanted to get a job, and what do most high school students do? My first job was in a mall. I sold clothes when I was 15 or 16. Hooters recruiters—they were all existing Hooters girls—would go around the mall to find new employees. I was friendly and outgoing, but I was too young when I was recruited, so I was a hostess at Hooters while I was working at the mall. When I turned 18, I was old enough to serve alcohol and be a Hooters girl. It wasn't an automatic promotion from hostess—I had to apply to wear the orange shorts.
I did it to save up for college. It wasn't my dream to work there. My plan was to get my degree in chemical engineering, go to law school, and be a lawyer for DuPont.
Lenny: A lawyer for DuPont sounds like a really specific dream. How did you come up with it?
KC: I saw a paint can that said "DuPont Paint," and I decided I wanted to work for them. My family lived in trailer parks and had blue-collar jobs, and though they worked really hard for what they had, I didn't aspire to it. I was good at debate and chemistry, so I put those two together.
I started college as an electrical engineering and computer science double major because the University of North Florida didn't have a chemical engineering program. But then, a few things happened while I was working at Hooters. One day all the cooks quit, and I ended up jumping in the back to do their job. You can either say, "Oh shit, we can't sell the food and I can't make any money," or you can jump in. So another waitress and a manager and I made all the food that day. Chicken wings aren't that hard to make. When they float, they're done.