From Hooters Girl to the corner office

September 23, 2013, 2:45 PM UTC

FORTUNE –If Kat Cole had stuck to her teenage dreams, the 35-year-old Cinnabon president would today be an attorney at DuPont.

It takes a certain kind of teenager to aspire for a career as a corporate lawyer at a chemical company, but that ambition led Cole at age 17 to get a job at Hooters as a hostess to save up for college. It was her introduction to the food service industry and also the first step toward becoming the head honcho at Cinnabon.

At 18, Cole was old enough to become a Hooters waitress and was studying at the University of North Florida as an engineering major . She was the first person in her family to enroll in college.

Cole gained a reputation at Hooters as an employee willing to roll up her sleeves and take the jobs that no one else wanted. When Hooters corporate called her manager looking for servers to help open the Australian market, Cole’s name came up. She was 19, had never been on a plane before, and had only once been outside of her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. She took her first-ever flight that night to Miami to get a passport.

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Cole spent 40 days in Sydney, and on the flight home read every major business magazine she could get her hands on. “A lot of things came together in that moment to change who I was going to become,” she says. When she got back, not even a month passed before Hooters asked her to do the same thing in Central America.

Several global markets later, Cole was failing college, and she decided to drop out. (It’s hard to pass your classes if you’re never there, she admits.) Leaving the university ended her pursuit of law school and a job at DuPont, but it opened up new doors for her. Almost immediately Hooters promoted her to oversee all employee training. She wasn’t even old enough to rent a car, which was problematic since she was always on the road. By 23 she was overseeing employee and global management training.

“I was lucky that Hooters wasn’t a more sophisticated company, because there’s no way someone my age would have had those chances,” she says. “It wasn’t like people graduating from Ivy League schools were dying to get a corporate job at Hooters.”

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Hooters gave Cole the kind of education she wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else. While she was there, the company bought and ran an airline (Hooters Air), had a credit card operation (Hooters Mastercard), and owned its own merchandise and food production businesses. Management was fighting with the company’s founders, and, in the middle of it all, Hooters CEO, president, and chairman Robert Brooks died suddenly. A battle ensued over the value of his estate. “I got exposed to things that people don’t get exposed in a lifetime,” she says.

At this point Cole knew that she wanted to run a company, but she didn’t think it was going to be Hooters. She needed outside perspective and the chance to learn the language of business. Despite never receiving an undergraduate degree, she was accepted to Georgia State’s MBA program.

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Business school was a way to validate herself. Growing up, her mother had left her father, and Cole helped raise her two younger sisters. Money was tight. “I was always trying to prove I wasn’t defined by where I came from,” Cole says. “That was the driving force. Everything that could be a professional accomplishment or degree was a way I was hoping to tell the world I’d become something different. Maybe not better, but different.”

Cole took an interest in private equity at business school and was offered a job to head up Cinnabon. (Cinnabon is part of Focus Brands, which is owned by private equity firm Roark Capital.) She’d promised Hooters she’d stay on until the estate was settled, so Roark held the job for her for six months until she joined in October 2010.

The recession had hit Cinnabon hard, leaving some franchisees in survival mode. The brand has a large presence in malls and airports, which saw traffic drop as consumers cut back. Cole closed underperforming franchise units, remodeled locations, added portion size variety, and blew out the beverage platform. “I call 2010 and 2011 clean up and reset,” she says. By 2012 the company was opening more locations than it was closing. It’s currently having the best three years of sales and growth that the brand has had in over seven years.

On Cole’s watch, Cinnabon is becoming as much of a consumer brand as it is a franchise-bakery business. Its signature cinnamon appears in more than 60 items on grocery store shelves (there’s the classic Pillsbury cinnamon roll, International Delight coffee creamer, and Kellogg’s cereal, just to name a few). It also does food service licensing with outlets like Burger King (BKW) and Taco Bell (YUM).

Cole says that like Kleenex or Xerox, Cinnabon is synonymous with its product, a factor that’s helping sales from all Cinnabon-related goods near $1 billion. Cole wants the brand to become as recognizable and long lasting as Oreo, which recently celebrated its 101st birthday. That may seem like a big dream, but that’s never stopped Cole before.