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She Got Her Start as a Hooters Waitress. Now She Runs a Billion Dollar Company

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One of the most popular article headlines about you out there seems to be “Former Hooter’s Waitress Turned President of Cinnabon.” How do you feel about that?

“You know I think the reality is the media looks for things that are going to be provocative and there are lots of people who are waitresses or waiters as their first job. So you don’t typically see that headline of other CEOs, yet many of them in fact were waiters and waitresses. But the fact that I was a waitress at Hooters just makes it fun for people to talk about. At the end of the day, it’s cool as long as they’re pointing at great things, you know, like the elevation of women leaders, like doing good in the world, building businesses. It’s a headline. It does get readers and so I would hope we could evolve beyond it to something that maybe is a little different, but it gets readers and it helps them eyeballs on the story they’re trying to share. Even though the headline might have a little edge, usually the stories have some really good stuff in there. So it’s alright. I mean, hey, I worked at Hooters, so it’s not a lie.”

You are a role model to many people, particularly women. Who do you want to be known as?

“Just someone who eventually will leave a legacy of helping others. One of the things I was able to do since I was very young is help people see that they are capable of more than they know. And if you can help people see that, then you can help companies, communities and countries see that because they’re nothing more than groups of people. So I want that to be what’s left behind or what I’m known for.”

What do you think is special about you that got you to where you are today?

“I don’t think I’m special at all. There are lots of people who have situations that are much worse than mine and much better than mine. We all follow our own path. I was a little bit lucky to have such a great mom. I mean that’s where the luck comes in. I had one of those family situations where yeah, it was tough, but I had this example of a leader who never gave up, who was always positive, just figured things out, was so supportive and encouraging, and even though we didn’t have a lot of money and we went through tough times, that is the greatest gift. I know plenty of people that have all the pedigree, the background and the wealth in the world and they still don’t have that support system and they lack something.

She was raising three girls, I’m the oldest of three girls. She left our father when I was nine and my sisters were several years younger than me. For three years she had to feed us on a food budget of ten dollars a week. And I learned to love spam and potted meat and frozen lasagna and beenie weenies and it was cool. She just, she figured things out and I watched that. I watched her do it without complaining. I watched her do it with grace, still always laughing and joking and having fun. So that just became what I believed was what people and what women were supposed to do and how they were supposed to be.”

You’ve become the president of Cinnabon without a college education or degree. What are your thoughts on college and getting an education?

“Well the opportunity that I got to open restaurants all over the world is actually not unique. It’s just my story is one of the few that get told. But if you work in a restaurant that’s growing overseas with a brand that’s growing overseas, they need people who already know how to do the job here to go travel and teach people there. So it’s not that uncommon. I was in the right place at the right time with a company that was growing. But at the same time I’d work my buns off to be known as someone who could get the job done. When the cooks quit I went back and learned how to cook. When the managers needed help, I helped. When the other servers or other people needed help, I was there to help because I was curious and I genuinely wanted to help.

Fast forward to a year of doing that, I was one of the few people that have worked every job in the building. So when someone called and said, “Hey we want you to go overseas and go open restaurants,” it wasn’t just that I was chosen. It wasn’t just that I was lucky. It’s that I had happened to have put myself in that position unknowingly, to be one of the top candidates.”

Do you feel you have learned things in the business world that college or an education couldn’t have taught you?

“Oh certainly. I think it’s impossible to capture years of experience opening businesses in a two year series of courses. But I do think you can scratch the surface and even though pretty deep in some areas a lot of the business schools now are doing a great job with case studies and samples. Getting students to dive into real world examples and evaluate them. But you’re evaluating them after those things have occurred with a full data set viewing, with all points of view; from a consumer, to the company, to factors going on in the economy. When you’re in a situation in real life, in a real moment, you don’t have that intel. It doesn’t prepare you for being in that moment having to make a gut judgement call about who to hire and where to spend your resources or what crazy idea to go after. A little bit of that is gut instinct and I think it’s fundamentally based on having the right team around you.”

Tell us about your particular interest in Africa, and what your plans are while you’re there.

“In Rwanda I’ll go stop by and check in with some people that I’ve met, see what’s going on in the city and really look and see if there are business opportunities there. In Ethiopia I’ll go back with this group of great friends and an organization called Global Hope Network International. So we go and work with villages. What we do is we support the people who live in the community and those people stay there. We get to come and go and help and be inspired and raise funds, but they live there. Every day they drive into these villages and they teach agricultural techniques, they teach them water purification techniques. They work with the government to get support to build schools. They work with core engineers to come and figure out how to drill wells to transport the water that we do find to the places where it needs to go, to drink and to irrigate any of the agriculture. Just amazing!

So when I go out there, I go meet with those village leaders with this group, see what progress they’ve made and help them look at things maybe a little differently. Not tell them what to do, but ask them questions that help them think differently about what they should do and then find out ways that we in the developed world could help support them in supporting themselves in the developing world.”

On the same topic, how do you feel it is your responsibility as a leader to help those in need?

“I think it’s a responsibility of everyone who can help, to help those who are in need. Period full stop. You don’t have to be a leader; you don’t have to be with a big company. You don’t have to have a lot of money. If you are in a position to help, there’s no greater way to display gratitude for that position that you’re in than to help someone else. That can be as simple as opening a door, or buying a cup of coffee for someone behind you. Or volunteering at local shelter which anyone can do in their communities and then yes, as you evolve in your life and get yourself in a position where maybe you can help others in a different way or a bigger way. It doesn’t mean it’s better, sometimes money is not the answer for groups and people in need. Sometimes it’s love, it’s heart, it’s ideas, it’s thinking, it’s expertise for an organization that has no funding. So I certainly think for people who are leaders of companies, yes you have an additional responsibility in addition to what everyone should be doing to help others. But to set an example of that old saying that to those much is given much is expected. You never know when your life will turn in an instant and you’ll be the person who’s in need. So create some good karma and go do some good. No matter how high or low on the totem pool you are. You never know when you’re going to need it one day.”

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As a company that hires many young employees, what are your thoughts on the Gen-Y workforce?

“From my perspective we are typically employers of people when it is their first job. Just as my job was in a mall, that’s true for the people who work for our franchisees and for our corporately run bakeries. In general when it’s people’s first job, I don’t find that they’re trying to get out of work and not work hard, they want to learn. They want to do a good job. They want to be successful. They want to prove themselves. So all the comments that I hear and that I see on the corporate side with younger generations who definitely want more flexibility and want to sort of create their own world and maybe not adhere to the general systems of corporations. I don’t see it at the youngest levels. When they’re fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and they’re coming in for their first job, they want to work. They want to earn their paycheck and have some fun. I think what’s a bigger trend is they want to be really really proud of where they work. They want to be connected to it in some way. That can be tough for some companies to draw that connection. If you’re making hamburgers, how do you connect that to something meaningful? You actually can, but it means companies have to intentionally do that. They have to help employees see why what they’re doing with that dish, meat or bread matters.”

You personally visit your stores often. Are there any noticeable or funny incidents that have happened while you’ve been there?

“So my first, I think it was my first time working in one of bakeries. I’m a very indulgent person. I love sweets. I love to treat myself. I was the kid who always licked the brownie bowl until it was squeaky clean when we were making them at home. So I was baking in one of the bakeries and I was learning how to frost the Cinnabon cinnamon rolls. There’s actually a technique if you can imagine. So I’m frosting a Cinnabon cinnamon roll and the whole time I’m staring at the giant bowl of frosting and thinking, “oh my god I just want to eat all of it”. So I got to finish frosting the rolls and I literally took my finger in the bowl, grab the frosting and licked the frosting in front of everyone staring there, in this food operation and then I went “oh crap”. We now have to throw the whole bowl of frosting. I totally forgot where I was, and was so entranced by the frosting I just decided to you know eat it like I do when I was five which was not very food safe. So we have to throw it away and all the employees were mortified.”

What other industries or brands would you like to partner Cinnabon with in the future?

“The Cinnabon brand has so much equity because it’s highly differentiated, it adds value to many other things. It’s so different from many other things that are out there and it’s so clearly defined in the consumers mind that it adds value to other brands that are ten times our size. Pillsburry, Kelloggs, Burger King, Taco Bell, all these companies we’re partnering with. We love partnering with them because they have points of distribution that we don’t and they love partnering with us, because we bring a premium distinction in the baking category that it might take them a little longer to develop on their own. Consumers just love these fun partnerships.

So we’re already doing some fun desserts and fast food, we’ve got some cool sweet treats being developed for other types of restaurant chains. We just launched Keurig Green Mountain Cinnabon Cake Cups, so if you have a Keurig you can get a little cinnamon in there. I always joke and say there’s a few ways you can have fat free Cinnabon, coffee is one of them, vodka is another. We have some cool aromatic things coming out. So I love the aromatic scents world, beverages is a lot of fun. Maybe some type of baking line to help people bake indulgent products at home. So there’re still a few more industry segments and retail segments out there where I think Cinnabon can really play and add more value. But the big opportunity is just continuing to be an authority in sweetness and baking an indulgence. There’s a lot of opportunity just in that space world wide.”

What obstacles have you faced because of your gender, on the way up to becoming President?

“I really haven’t faced that many obstacles just because of my gender. If I really think about it, I’m sure that there have been times and there have been people who thought more because of my age and less because of my gender. But either way possibly some combination of the two that I wasn’t ready for an opportunity or that I shouldn’t be there. But even though I know that people are thinking that, I just didn’t give it the time of day. I didn’t acknowledge it, I didn’t honor it. I didn’t give it time or mental space because I had other things to worry about, other things to do. I think sometimes, women particularly young women can get a little bit of analysis paralysis by trying to diagnose the reason that someone’s not giving them the opportunity and they think maybe oh it’s because I’m a woman or because I’m young. The reality is, yeah maybe that is why but it’s better to go through life and you career assuming positive intent and assuming people want you to be there and that you deserve to be there. If you have that little voice in your head that says “well you know, you don’t know well enough or all these guys have been here for so long” tell the voice to shut up. Be thoughtful in your approach and have a point of view and speak up. That has served me well and because of that, that inner core confidence, that belief that people would put me somewhere for a reason and I better be the best version of me that I can be. I don’t think there have been a lot of gender based obstacles, at least not that I’ve been willing to acknowledge or that I’ve given any credibility to.”

What advice do you have for women in business as well as female entrepreneurs?

“One is, I learned this from a friend of mine who is actually a co-author with me on my first book. She used to always say ‘it’s not about the event, it’s about the event after the event,’ meaning it’s not about that moment or that interaction or that meeting, it’s about what that person is left with and what they think about you and what they then go do as a result. I see a lot of young women get really caught up in an interaction or a dynamic and they sort of lose themselves a little bit because they’re trying to be who they think other people want them to be instead of focusing on just being kind, giving, smart and focusing on the business. That way when someone walks away from that interaction they’ll think ‘Oh my gosh, that’s someone who I want on my team.’ Or maybe I’m not going to give her that job or that business right now, but they’ve got that seed in their brain. You know someone that they want on their team. So that’s a big one I think. Don’t get so caught up in the moment and be too hard on yourself. Think about how you can be giving and help so people want to call you back, want you to be around, and want you to be on their team.

The second one is actually a line that I just said but “don’t be so hard on yourself.” I often find that women chase perfection significantly more often than men. There are a lot of fun sayings around like “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.” I was just reading an article in I think Ink or Fortune about how many of these startup entrepreneurs come in and the question to one of these VC guys was, “Who do you think makes a better entrepreneur, young women or young men?” He said, “You know the difference I think is often men will come in and just ask for insane things.” Like I want a hundred million dollars for this idea that has never even been put into practice because I so believe it’s going to exist. And many of the women come in and they say it has to be perfect before they even ask for anything, even something very small. The VC guy’s point of view says, “Hey I like both.” I think maybe going after the woman entrepreneur may be a little more of a sure bet but women tend to hold themselves back because they’re not going after those big things. They don’t want to let people down. They want to be confidently accomplished in their area and because of that, they sometimes let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

I see a lot of women who will come to me and say “How do you do it?” You know, how do you balance taking care of yourself or your family and work and friends and all of that and I just look at them and say, “I don’t. No one does. No one balances it.” There’s such a thing as harmony I think where you kind of get to a place where some days you’re good at one area and not so good in the other and it flips the next week, but you keep it from going crazier to extreme. But the women that I find that are most successful are the ones that learned to just be totally cool with themselves and not to be so hard on themselves and just understand that you’re never gonna be perfect. But women put way more emphasis on perfection or this outer definition of being totally pulled together than men do. As a result they hold themselves back. So I tell women, don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Follow Kat Cole on Twitter @KatColeATL

Photography by Melly Lee

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With a bachelor's degree in International Studies: Political Science from University of California, San Diego, Waylae works as a blogger/editor for NextShark. Along with writing, he is an aspiring entrepreneur that enjoys hip-hop, fashion, and learning about new cultures.
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