Maxine Clark, founder and chief executive bear of Build-A-Bear Workshop (BABW), used to think she was very different from her mother. Her mother was a social worker whose long hours were not well compensated.

"I kind of rebelled against that," says Clark, who was born and raised in Miami, Florida. "I was going to be a business person and see the world. But, in the end, I realized my mother taught me a lot about giving back to the community. That it takes a village to raise a bear."

Today, from BABW's home base in St. Louis, Clark is building the village necessary to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Clark earned a bachelor's degree in marketing and advertising from the University of Georgia in 1971. Promoted quickly by the May Co. from executive trainee to buyer, she credits mentors such as May Co. Chairman Stanley Goodman for wisdom that helped propel her to the May Co. executive suite and four years at the helm of Payless Shoesource.

Retailing as Entertainment

"Stanley came on a corporate trip and spoke to the buyers and told us, 'Retailing is entertainment and the store is a stage. When the customer has fun, they spend more money.' That became my watchword," says Clark.

Payless Shoesource had spun off as a public company in 1996 when Clark and her then ten-year old friend Katie Burkhardt were shopping for Beanie Babies, small stuffed animals that were wildly popular at the time.

"Katie said, 'These are so simple. We could make them.' She meant create them in her basement. But I heard something bigger," recalls Clark.

When Clark couldn't convince anyone to sell her their stuffed animal-making business, she took Katie’s advice and started her own. Build-A-Bear Workshop, a teddy-bear themed experience retail store that allows children to create their own "huggable companions," debuted in St. Louis in 1997 and is now a global brand, with more than 170 stores worldwide.

Washington University Angel

"Philanthropy tied to kids was part of the business plan, even before I made a profit," says Clark. "But I didn't get here on my own, so giving to entrepreneurship is very important to me."

A major beneficiary of that giving is Washington University in St. Louis.

"I was impressed with her first Build-A-Bear store in the Galleria in St. Louis and asked her to speak to my intro to retailing class, which she agreed to do and has done ever since" says Martin Sneider, adjunct professor of retailing at the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University.

"We learn in our class about entrepreneurs like L.L. Bean and Sam Walton. But to have a real entrepreneur speaking makes a significant impact. The class can sense her enthusiasm, attention to detail and consumer orientation in living color. She strikes a particular chord with the young women."

In addition to interacting with students, Clark volunteers her time to recruit and speak on behalf of the business school and gives unrestricted dollars to foster its growth.

A few years ago for her 50th birthday, her friends created the Build-A-Business Fund at the business school, which supports internships in young companies in St. Louis that couldn't otherwise afford to pay an intern. When people ask Clark what she'd like for her birthday, she suggests making a donation to the fund.

Clark says she also tries, wherever possible, to share her knowledge and experience. That means hiring some ten to fifteen interns every summer to do "real work" in accounting, planning, product development and PR, many of whom end up hired by the company. It means speaking at least once a month at universities across the country. It also means mentoring, internally as well as giving advice in response to phone calls and emails from "out of the blue."

Clark's young collaborator Katie Burkhardt, now an undergraduate in the business school at Washington University, began working for BABW in merchandising stocking the summer after her freshman year of high school. Last summer, after a trip with Clark to South Korea and Japan to open the first two BABWs in Asia, she researched comparative stores sales and sales trends and worked with the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team on the new BABW in Citizen's Bank Park stadium in Philadelphia.

"I have found that I can apply the material I learn in every business class to my experiences at BABW," says Burkhardt. "Whether we learn about strategy, competitive advantage or company culture, I can always draw on my knowledge of BABW. Through working at BABW, traveling with Maxine and taking my Management 100 class, I have realized my passion for business."

Lessons and Dreams

Clark attributes the pleasure she derives from teaching and mentoring to appreciation for how much she learned from people like her who built their own businesses. Among the lessons she frequently shares with students:

  • Start a business because you have a passion for it. Don't do it to avoid working for someone else (a reason she frequently hears from young audiences);
  • Develop a business plan. Don't think it's not necessary because Sam Walton didn't have one; and
  • Ground yourself with people who can do things you can't, even if you have to pay them more than you pay yourself. Don't think of entrepreneurship as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Clark is also enjoying writing a book about the creation of Build-A-Bear Workshop, which she expects to be published next year. Grateful to people who invested in her dream, she's also ventured into angel investing and hopes to do more in the future.

"In 1997, we opened Build-A-Bear Workshop," says Clark. "In 2004, we went public on the New York Stock Exchange. What could be better than that? It's the smaller companies of today that are going to be the ones the successful ones of tomorrow. Giving back to help those companies is required, otherwise we'll be out here by ourselves."

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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  • Maxine Clark Founder and chief executive bear Build-A-Bear Workshop