Editor’s note: As high schools and colleges invite successful alumni to return to campus to share their thoughts about life, we thought we’d provide a “commencement address” of our own. Sandy Springs businesswoman Kat Cole, president of Cinnabon Inc., has traveled the world and seen success close up. We asked her to share her thoughts on living a fulfilling life. Here’s what she had to say.
By Kat Cole
Coworkers, students, peers, media and friends often ask me, “What advice do you have to help others be successful?” My response is, “Success is something that you have to define for yourself, and it is almost completely up to you whether or not you achieve it.”
I went from growing up in a divorced family and single-parent household, being in high school, working at Hooters, going to college, traveling globally for work, dropping out of college, and getting promoted to the corporate world all by the age of 20.
I remember becoming a serial volunteer, painting, traveling, living and loving life to the fullest, being in and out of relationships, seeing my sisters grow up, becoming a speaker, taking big professional risks, and becoming a vice president of a large company by the age of 26. I recall moving up in the for-profit corporate world, leading non-profit groups, getting into a serious relationship, traveling internationally, getting involved in global humanitarian work, spending time in Rwanda, getting my MBA, changing jobs to become president of Cinnabon at 33, and most recently helping villages elevate themselves out of poverty in Ethiopia.
There are many lessons garnered from that journey so far, and I’m certainly still learning. Those lessons helped me realize success (for me) is about helping people, communities, brands, businesses and even countries realize they are capable of more than they know, so they can make a positive difference in their world. Success for me is also expressing gratitude and making people proud, especially the many people who have given me chances, coaching and opportunities along the way.
Looking back, I realize that some of my most powerful influences and inspirations for leadership, success and living a fulfilled life came from the most unexpected places – from villages in Africa, from little sayings my mom had, from listening to others’ successes and mistakes, and definitely from making my own.
Pay attention as you go through life; the most powerful lessons to help you be successful are around you every day. Here are a few that have helped me, and I hope they can help you as you enter the next exciting chapter of your life… whatever that my look like.
If Not Me, Who? If Not Now, When? Ask yourself this; it helps you step up and speak up when you need to. This has guided me through life – just as it did my mom.
You Define You. Never forget where you came from, but remember, you are not solely defined by your circumstances or your history; you can reinvent yourself many times over if needed. Look at my story – nothing about my background would suggest I would have ended up where I did. I created my own narrative. I believed my mom when she said, “You can do anything.” Not only did I believe her, but I helped others believe it too.
No Borders No Boundaries. When I was 19, I was asked to go open the company’s first restaurant in Australia. I had never been out of the state of Florida, had never been on a plane (or any other type of mass transit for that matter), and of course, I did not have a passport. But none of that stopped me. I said yes, and then figured it out. The only boundaries to your growth and experiences are those you mentally put up, or those you allow others to put upon you.
Be Curious. Have a Constant Pursuit of Education, and Have a Bias for Action. The most creative and accomplished people I know have this in common. They are constantly learning at every opportunity; they know they don’t know it all. They ask, “why, how, why not?” And, when they get the answers, they share what they learn and do something about it. Your mind is something others can never take away – feed it.
Volunteer. Give. For the job, for the community, for those in need. We all need a hand up some times, and giving of yourself is one of the best ways to learn, grow, meet people and make a difference. The reason I was asked to open that first international restaurant was because I raised my hand to help with jobs others didn’t want. After about a year, I had worked every job in the building. Who knew that would make me the top candidate for international travel, which ultimately would change my life.
Life is most about relationships – if nothing else. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how much money you have, or what a great school you go to; if you can’t build meaningful relationships and work well with others to influence them, your other attributes can only go so far. Even the coolest inventions and biggest companies founded by one person only grew because of the team they pulled together, and you can only lead when others want to be on your team. Be kind, take pride in helping others, and keep your word. Remember, you never know… seriously… life is full of surprises (and karma), so try to be your best self at every opportunity. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without so many great people who have been kind to me and helped me along the way.
There are others, but time and space won’t allow them all to be shared here. So keep these final two contrasting points in mind. You have all the time in the world; you are young and have a bright future. But! You have to live and love like there is no tomorrow, because there are no guarantees in life. If you want to change something, say something or do something, do it. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you, allow someone else to do it instead of you, or miss the opportunity, because it’s gone. The world needs awesome, ambitious, kind, curious, creative people to step up and speak up to continue to make it a better place to live.
Best of luck to all of you. You can make all the difference the world needs.