Kat Cole, former president of Cinnabon, was tapped this year to oversee global multichannel growth for Atlanta-based Focus Brands Inc., parent of Cinnabon, McAlisters’ Deli and Moe’s Southwest Grill, among other brands.
But it’s not the only new role she’s taking on this year.
On Jan. 1, Cole became chair of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, an organization committed to advancing female professionals in the industry through advocacy and education.
Perhaps it’s fitting that those two new roles come as the WFF celebrates 25 years of educating and elevating female professionals because, according to Cole, her individual success and the growth of the WFF are inextricably linked.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without the Women’s Foodservice Forum,” she said.
The WFF was founded in 1989 with the goal of developing female professionals in the male-dominated foodservice industry, and has since grown to include 22,000 active participants and hundreds of volunteers from throughout the industry. Its initiatives include regional and national events, scholarship funds, leadership training and other educational resources.
Cole has been involved with the WFF as a volunteer and committee member for years, served on the board from 2009-2012 and has been a member of its executive committee since 2012. An active volunteer who is vocal about giving back to the community and the industry, Cole also won the WFF’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2007.
Cole spoke with NRN editor in chief Sarah Lockyer about the progress the WFF has made, the power of industry connections and what impact the group can have on the next generation of foodservice industry leaders.
Listen to the entire interview:
Tell me about your experience with the WFF and what you hope to accomplish as the newest chair of the organization.
[My] journey with the Women’s Foodservice Forum has been a very powerful and personal one. I was in my mid-twenties in an upper management capacity at Hooters when I attended my first WFF event, and was blown away by ... all of the professionals in the room, most of whom were women. That single interaction really reframed what was possible within this industry and gave me a new perspective.
I received an immediate, real and visible benefit from being active in the Women’s Foodservice Forum. Practices that I put in place in [my] business, no doubt, saved us money, time, and allowed us to elevate our practices. I was receiving the benefit of learning from all of these great companies and recognizing the thought processes of their leaders.
Not only did I have a journey with WFF, but WFF has also had a journey. Different CEOs, different sizes, really great accomplishments and amazing products.
Over the past 25 years, progress has indeed been made in terms of diversity inclusion and gender equality. But I think we all know there is still a tremendous amount of work that can be done. What do you see for the next 25 years, and where can the WFF fit into that landscape?
The next 25 years are about scaling the benefit at a smaller and more intimate and tribal level — in such a way that we democratize access to it. That means everything from increasing the adoption of technology, the library of resources, to the Google hangout — different ways that we will bring women leaders access to other great leaders in the industry.
It also means getting more regional and doing more events in companies. The future is more of WFF coming to the member and coming to the company in addition to those individuals and companies coming to WFF.
WFF for the next generation
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The other big piece is about broadening the definition of leadership. That means bringing in young game-changers to really lead the discussion. We have to elevate women leaders who are bold in their own right as a 22-year-old independent contributor somewhere, or male leaders who are leading really cool, inclusive, practices in their organizations.
We don’t care where the great ideas come from ... but we want to be sure that we are in fact pushing for more companies to be best-in-class at having an innovative view on leadership competencies and celebrating different leaders.
Who were some of your mentors?
I have had many people throughout my life who have been so generous when I ask them some version of this question: “I’m dealing with X. I heard you have, too. How did you deal with it?” Their willingness to give perspective and experience over coffee, over a lunch, or while walking from one meeting to another have literally shaped who I have become both as a person and as a leader.
There are also those who you would probably put into the more formal mentor bucket. Certainly, Fritzi Woods, who was the CEO of WFF, before she passed away last year, was a definite mentor of mine. People like [restaurant industry veteran] Phil Hickey, Alice Elliott [of The Elliot Group], and Steve Romaniello [with Roark Capital Group] have all been incredibly generous with their leadership.
The key is when they give you an answer to listen and actually allow it to color your thinking. That’s how you really advance your leadership.
You mentioned some pretty big names. How did you reach out to those folks?
I did not reach out to them, and they did not reach out to me. It was through my work of service in the industry that we ended up in the same room. The connection was in the spirit of doing good work, and then it naturally evolved. Something interesting happens when you’re serving together, when you’re just in a place trying to elevate your industry, shape your environment, or promote political advocacy. It just changes the conversation. You both are naturally wanting to reach out to each other.
What do you think the WFF can mean for the industry, particularly for the next generation of leaders?
It’s a continued example of all that is possible. The Women’s Foodservice Forum will continue to be the place that diverse talent and diverse career trajectories and paths are most visible.
It’s incredibly important that young women see that the WFF has the content, helps build the competencies and has the connections that help them accelerate what they want out of their life, and their career. It’s about inspiring them to also be the bearers of great advice and mentoring, be inclusion-focused, and reach out through their organizations to be a part of this change.