Do I really need an MBA to make it in the business world? It’s a question Kat Cole fields often. Cole, 40, is COO and president of Focus Brands, which includes Cinnabon, Carvel, Moe’s and others. Her surprising answer is wound into the remarkable story of how she rose from a college dropout to president of Cinnabon at 32 — all before receiving that hallowed MBA.

Here, Cole shares how she climbed the ranks in the business world, why she finally went for her MBA, and how to know if business school makes sense for your career.

LEARNING BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS ON THE JOB

Growing up in Florida, my family didn’t have a lot. My parents divorced when I was 9, and my mother struggled to raise my two sisters and me on very little income. I helped out and learned responsibility at a young age.

When I was 17, I got a job as a hostess at Hooters. In summer-hot Florida, it wasn’t considered controversial because lots of people wore the same or less than the uniform every day. I took on a lot, quickly. When I was 18, I became a regional training coordinator, teaching customer service and food safety classes. At 19, I was asked to help open the first of our franchises in Australia. Soon, I was traveling to multiple continents, helping to run more openings.

In the restaurant business, if you pay attention and do your job, you can learn timeless skills and knowledge: what consumers value and what they don’t; what the best employees, products and services look like; and which practices are rewarded with the most profit. Business school probably can’t beat it for learning the fundamentals!

THE CROSSROADS OF CURIOSITY AND CONFIDENCE

I was still working with the restaurant when I began studying electrical engineering and computer sciences in college. College was so important to me, but I couldn’t do it all. I was failing my courses. It was time to make a choice, and I just couldn’t say no to the tremendous real-world opportunity I was offered at work. I dropped out of college at 20. Soon after that, I moved to Atlanta to become an employee training coordinator for the company.

If you work from a place of humility, curiosity, courage and confidence, you can make up for what you lack in experience.

I think I was promoted because I was humble and curious and unafraid to admit I didn’t know things. This helped me build trust, build teams, and engender support from the people around me. On the other hand, I was raised to have courage and confidence. I was courageous enough to make bold decisions and humble enough to correct if something went wrong. You can be new at something, but if you work from a place of humility, curiosity, courage and confidence, you can make up for what you lack in experience.

WHEN REAL-WORLD EXPERIENCE ISN’T ENOUGH

One of the smartest career moves you can make is to join a growing company where there’s ample opportunity to move up. As Hooters grew, I grew. At 26, I became vice president and helped turn it into a billion-dollar company.

During that time, a dear friend and mentor called me up. She said, “If you want to stay in the restaurant industry forever, you’re fine, because your reputation precedes you. But if you want to break into tech or other industries, you’re not going to get past their HR filters. You need to think about an advanced degree.” She told me that it’s rare, but some executive programs will accept you without a bachelor’s degree if you have great real-world experience, recommendations and a high enough score on the GMAT, GRE or both.

This was great news, because I’d reached a point in my career where I needed to upgrade my understanding of all things finance. My ability to communicate with financial groups was mediocre. I spoke an operational language, not a sophisticated financial one.

KNOWING IF AN MBA IS RIGHT FOR YOU

I was accepted into the International Business program at Georgia State University, where I went to school nights and weekends while working full-time and moving to the position of president of Cinnabon. For me, business school was worth it. My understanding and capabilities were meaningfully upgraded. But you can still achieve a business education outside of an MBA, through specialized coursework and certificate programs.

When young women coming out of college ask me if they should pursue an MBA, I always say every situation is unique. You need to be very clear with yourself about what you want to achieve. Then you can evaluate your best route to that goal — from finding a mentor to getting on-the-job training to taking a certificate program or a full-on master’s. What amount of cost and time does each require? If you’re a single mother or someone with a lot of responsibilities, you may need to choose the most cost-and-time efficient route to the desired outcome. The good news is: There are many roads to success and no wrong way to go, as long as you chart your course thoughtfully and from the heart.

Recommended Reading