Women in the workplaceThe child of a single mother. A young girl growing up in the segregated South. A hostess at a Hooters restaurant.

All were pivotal starting points for a few of the most powerful women in metro Atlanta. Years later, one became a senior vice president at Coca-Cola, another is the managing director of executive search firm Diversified Search, and the third is president of Cinnabon.

What inspired them? They reveal the keys to their success below.

QUESTION: Tell us about how you reached the position you’re in today. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way?

KAT COLE, president of Cinnabon: I’m the oldest of three girls raised by a single mother.

My mother told me from a very young age, “You can do anything.” And not just, “Oh, you can do anything; go play,” but beamed it into my brain: “You’re very special.” I was the first person to go to college. I dropped out of college to follow my passion of international operations. I started as a hostess in Hooters restaurants, and in 10 years was one of the vice presidents of the company.

I like to say I learned from my mother to be like water. If there was a crack, I was going to find it. Truly — when the cooks quit, I learned to cook. When the manager quit, I learned to count the cash.

And I didn’t know it at the time, but being curious and hungry to prove that I wasn’t defined by where I came from, that I could take on more and more — those things helped set me up to have a resume that made me the likely choice for other opportunities.

I watched my mother for three years feed our family on $10 a week. Despite how challenging our personal circumstances were, I had this awesome example of someone who just made it happen and always had an incredibly positive attitude.

And I had a constant balance of being humble enough to know that there was so much that I didn’t know and I needed a lot of people to help me along the way, and there were generous people who did such things. And I was hungry enough to be willing to do the work, even if I was younger or the only female in the group — to stand out and make a difference.

SALLY YATES, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia: That’s inspiring.

I come from a long line of lawyers in my family — my father, both of my grandfathers, my uncles, my cousins. But perhaps most notably my paternal grandma was a lawyer. In fact, she was one of the first women admitted to the Georgia Bar. She didn’t go to law school — back then, you didn’t have to. She read law under another lawyer and took the bar exam.

Despite the fact that she was far brighter than any of us in the family, she was never able to practice law — because back then they didn’t hire women to be lawyers. Instead, she was the secretary for my grandfather, and then for my father and my uncle when they were practicing law.

I always wondered — she never really expressed bitterness about that — but I know that had to have driven her crazy. To be the secretary — to be typing up someone else’s thoughts — when her thoughts would have exceeded those of my father and certainly of me.

That was always sort of in the back of my mind, when I went to law school, and went to private practice and was in a big firm for a few years, and went to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

This is going to sound incredibly corny, but when I was at the U.S. Attorney’s office and realized the luxury that you have as a lawyer to believe that you’re on the right side of a matter, to be representing the people of the United States, and to carry that privilege every day — how do you go back to something else when you’ve had that chance to do that? What I hear from all of us that are here is it’s finding something that is meaningful to us. I tell my daughter and my son the very same thing. And I feel very lucky to have found that in my job, and it sounds like you all have found that, as well.

TERI MCCLURE, senior vice president at UPS: It really is amazing, some of the threads that are flowing through all of these discussions. Because like you, my grandfather was a lawyer, but was unable to practice law in Kansas. As a black man in Kansas, he read for the bar, but he couldn’t make a living practicing law. So he went to work for the Postal Service. He retired at the age of 65, then hung out a shingle and decided to practice law.

LORI KILBERG, partner at the real estate law firm Hartman Simons & Wood: Wonderful.

MCCLURE: And so he probably is my greatest influence growing up.

But I come from a family of educators and a lawyer. The expectations of my parents were always that I do more than they had an opportunity to do.

And so I went to law school.

(My grandfather and parents) really encouraged me to do things differently. When all of my friends were going to the state school, I chose to go out of state. Just really being willing to take risks — I think that has allowed me to take advantage of a number of opportunities.

JANE SMITH, executive director of Spelman College’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement: I came from a family that valued human rights and valued education. I anchored myself in the beginning in a number of nonprofits that brought me then to talk about leadership and civic engagement at Spelman College.

As I look back, I was always valuing authenticity and always paying attention to my fears. What is a fear that I may have and how do I use that fear appropriately to get objectives done?

VERONICA BIGGINS, managing director of the Atlanta office of Diversified Search: I grew up in Greensboro, N.C., the seat of civil rights without a doubt. My father was a college professor, my mother was a teacher. And they had expectations.

I came up as a middle child, brothers on each end. I came here to Spelman College. We’re all women, and the expectation was that you would do well.

I started at C&S Bank in what was a management training program, where there were very few women, but expectations.

Then I think internally there was this unrest — almost all the time — seeking and finding something different.

KENZIE BIGGINS, founder of social media consulting form Uniquely Defined and daughter of Veronica Biggins: I grew up here in Atlanta, of course, in a family with high expectations — but along with high expectations, a family that let me be creative.

I’m a classically trained soprano. I used to act as a child. I feel like these things really shaped me in my path.

And I went the classic (route) — let me go work in a Fortune 500. I worked for Target and Bank of America in different capacities.

But at the end of the day, I knew I wanted to do something creative. So I went back to (Savannah College of Art and Design) for graduate school.

It was interesting — everybody was like, “Go back to a Fortune 500. You’ll be safe. You’ll be comfortable.” But I pushed myself and I said, “People have said that I’m great at what I do in the social media realm, and I’m great at branding. So I’m going to step out there because they’ve said that they will pay me for it — to start a company.”

Luckily, I have a family that is still supportive but still expects me to be great. And I expect myself to be great, but in a creative capacity.

WENDY CLARK, senior vice president at Coca Cola Co.: I was born and raised in England. I have a British father and an American mother.

I am where I am because of the relentless belief of my mother, who raised me. I was raised by a single mother as an only child.

I don’t know that I knew what I was going to be, but I knew I had to be something. It was always very clear from an early age, “You will go to college.” She built that ambition in me, and it was a shared belief that we both had. When your parents have that belief in you at an early age, it sort of pans out.

I don’t see that there’s anything that I can’t do. I try to instill that in my three children now because my mother instilled it in me. The minute someone underestimates me, I just put another shoulder into it.

KELLY REGAL, executive vice president of Turner Broadcasting System: I’m the youngest of four siblings and there was a large age gap, with the three together and then me. I was competitive and always keeping up.

I started out as an attorney in my career originally. I loved it when people underestimated me. I can remember from one of my first depositions that the person thought I was a court reporter. I was like, “Great, go ahead and think that.” Being underestimated always was to your advantage walking in.

Contrary to Teri, I don’t think I actually had a plan. And that’s helped my career because I’ve been willing to take on things I really was unsure of, and possibly not even fully prepared for. I was willing to take left and right turns, and add areas that I had to learn after I had responsibility for them.

You have to kick that door open when something becomes available, and sometimes it is timing and good luck because you were prepared.

KILBERG: This is an extremely tough act to follow.

I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer since I was probably 2 years old. I could never conceive of doing anything else.

My grandfather was a lawyer in New Jersey, and he was an incredible advocate for ethics in government when there were none in New Jersey. His greatest disappointment was when he was being sized for his judicial robes and there was a last-minute blackball by one of the Mob members that he went after, who still had influence. And he never got his judicial appointment.

There was a very strong belief in my family in doing the right thing, and there’s a lot more to life than being successful in a financial, traditional sense. And I think that impacted me a lot, as I went through my career — which was really much more of a jungle gym.

I didn’t have a straight trajectory. I did very well in law school; I had my choice of jobs coming out. Then I had twins.

It definitely changed everything. I had a partnership offer at the time I was pregnant and took my leave.

And I’ll never forget this: One of the senior partners took me aside and said, “Lori, have you thought about what you’re going to do?” And I said, “Well, of course. I’m going to have these babies, I’m going to come back to work. Maybe I’ll work part-time for a couple of months, and then full-time, and I’m going to be a partner, and I’m going to do this and that.” And he said, “You have no idea what you want. There are certain things you can plan for, and there are certain things you can’t.”

He was right. I have done it every which way. I took a leave of absence; I then had another child. I worked part time for Greenberg Traurig, for which I will be forever grateful because they were absolutely wonderful in letting me work my own hours and figure it out. And then I worked for my Atlanta law firm for eight years from Pennsylvania, when my husband took another job in Pennsylvania.

So I was able to raise my kids, I was able to do the carpools, and I worked.

It doesn’t come without issues and without guilt. When I was working, I felt that I should be home. When I was home, I felt that I should be working.

I saw my peers become partners and then managing partners of their firms and be incredibly successful. But the lesson learned is that we define success in different ways at different points in our lives.

I didn’t bloom ’til 50. I didn’t have a shred of confidence in myself. And I was not fearless like y’all were. I’m just sitting here thinking, “Wow.” And suddenly, at the age of 50 — and maybe that coincided with my children going off to college — I realized my potential. So life may actually start at 50, who knows?

COLE: Yay. (Laughter) I almost teared up listening to you talk, thinking about how many other women are out there taking themselves out of the race.

They don’t have someone behind them pointing out how special they really are.

So literally, as you were talking, I was thinking, “Who can I find in my organization right now that might feel that way?” And blooming at 50 is awesome. But how can we help people bloom at 20, 30 and 40, and all along the way?

Source: MCT Information Services