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Q&A With Build-A-Bear Workshop Founder, Maxine Clark

Q&A With Build-A-Bear Workshop Founder, Maxine Clark

Customization has become the norm in retail, but when Ellevate Network member Maxine Clark created the Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997, it was an innovative idea -- and one that customers responded to!

Today there are more than 400 Build-A-Bear Workshop stores worldwide. Cumulative sales have exceeded $5 billion and over 145 million stuffed animals have been sold worldwide.

In June 2013, Maxine stepped down from her Chief Executive Bear role to apply her entrepreneurial skills to her passion for improving K-12 public education and to invest in and mentor women and minority entrepreneurs. Her next act is to make public education much more consumer friendly by creating more access for families and students to systems and supports to enrich each child’s learning experience.

Just launched is her first product, Blueprint4SummerSTL, a free and easy-to-use mobile app designed to help families navigate the best summer activities for their children. On the entrepreneurship side, her investments include Goldie Blox, myEDmatch and St. Frank.

Maxine is also a Managing Partner of Prosper Women’s Capital, a St. Louis based fund created to invest in women owned businesses in the St. Louis area and a member of the Board of Advisors of Lewis & Clark Ventures, a St. Louis based private equity firm.

In her recent Twitter chat, she talked about her road to creating Build-A-Bear as well as the best advice she ever received.


What is the most important thing to know about starting or leading a business?
Have a plan! My business plan helped guide me and it's always a work in progress.

Is there anything you would have changed or done differently with Build-A-Bear when you first started out?
Nothing different. The customer led the way, we listened and acted.

What’s the most important strength women bring to business?
Women bring their life experience to the table. Helps everyone see bigger picture.

Before leaving Build-A-Bear, did you know you wanted to seek out new ventures? Why are these important to you?
I realized I had only 20-30 years left on the planet and saw many ways my experience could help our community. I have always done my work with good intention and now I do it intentionally.

Who has been your biggest influence in your career?
The customer by far! They are the reason we exist. I had terrific mentors who set an example for me. 

What has been your biggest career challenge to date?
I once thought I was ready for a promotion, but my bosses had a different view.They were right and my success was greater.

How do you define your professional mission?
I wanted to make a difference through work and community. If both could meet, all the better.


What did your path to Build A Bear look like?
20 -plus yearrs in retail management to the President at Payless Shoes. Then I wanted a new challenge. Build-A-Bear was the result. My experience was an important key to the fast success of Build-A-Bear.

Do you think that the idea of customization is unique aspect of a business or the economy?
Yes, we were first and now there are so many opportunities to customize thanks to technology and the imagination of consumers. Customization allows users to create products that you would never have thought of. This is a huge opportunity.

What role do you think fun plays in the retail experience?
Retailing is entertainment store is a stage & when Customer has fun, they spend more money - S.Goodman


What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?"
Don't walk so fast. The short cut isn't always the fastest way to get from A to B.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be patient! What a hard lesson that was, but it slowed me down to listen and learn more deeply.

How do you stay resilient when things get tough?
My community work keeps me grounded in what really matters. Pay it forward. Always see the big picture.

What daily habits contribute to your success?
I am incredibly curious and everyday I am asking questions, researching learning and sharing.

What role do your values play in your every day work?
At our Family foundation, I intertwine sound business strategies with community need four greater impact.


How important has networking been in your career?
Very important! I am still connected to people I did business with decades ago. People I met years ago still impact me in multiple facets of my life. I do same for others.

Role Models and Mentorship

What are your thoughts on mentorship and reverse mentorship?
I am a mentor to many. Many days I get more wisdom than I give. Listening is an important mentoring skill and when you listen you learn.

Do you have a role model?
My mother was strong model for me-independent, decisive, empathetic,smart, relentless and generous.

Why is it important to invest in women and girls?
We need talent in this world and women and girls are part of that talent. We need diversity. Women and men of color to bring new perspective to the workplace and get better results.

What do you think is the most important trait in a leader?
Vision to see where the business needs to go and the ability to motivate others to help execute. 


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook:

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