Maxine Clark Interview: Build-A-Bear Mega Founder Turns to Social Entrepreneurship
Diana Landau | July 07, 2023
Carl interviews Maxine Clark, a true catalyst and inspirator. After a two-decade career as a successful executive in retail, Maxine pivoted at age 48 and founded Build-A-Bear Workshops, which has sold nearly 250 million stuffed animals worldwide. In 2004, Maxine orchestrated the company's highly successful $170 million IPO, the first St. Louis woman to do so. Maxine, a woman of boundless energy and enthusiasm, continues to be a driving force for positive change in the world.
Maxine grew up in Coral Gables, FLA. Her father was an electrician and her mother had quite a remarkable career in the non for profit realm. Maxine tells us her mother graduated high school at 14 and went to work as a secretary for Eleanor Roosevelt. Fun fact: Roosevelt urged the women who worked for her to go out in the world and advocate for positive change. Her mother did so, first as a big fundraiser in the community and then started a school for children with Down's Syndrome. Maxine tells us, "My mother was very creative. No problem can't be solved. I like that."
Although she first thought she wanted to go into law, after college she began an illustrious career in retail, working her way up the ranks of the May Company. She became President of Payless ShoeSource in 1992. In 1996 at the age of 48, she moved to St, Louis and started thinking about a new business. Sparked by the idea of creating personalized teddy bears, she tried to buy a couple companies, which didn't work out. Everyone told her she was crazy.
But you guessed it--only nine months later the first Build-A-Bear Workshop opened in St, Louis. Carl asks Maxine how she could go from creating a concept to opening a store in record time. "I'm pretty good at planning and execution. I had experience and resources. But I also had a vision." As Founder and CEO, Maxine led her Build-A-Bear team to the pinnacle of growth and success just seven years after start up. She was the first woman to bring an IPO to Wall Street, managing critical relationships for the company to be publicly traded on the NYSE.
After 17 years with Build-A-Bear, Maxine wanted to pivot again, but this time in the not for profit world. In 2015, she launched a ground-breaking project to create positive change in her community. The "Delmar Divide" was an area in St. Louis historically known for segregating poor black neighborhoods from white neighborhoods. Maxine's team bought the old St. Luke's Hospital and is developing an innovative hub and collaborative space dedicated to helping not for profit creatives to work together, to improve the lives of children and families in the metropolitan St. Louis area. This once-neglected dividing line in St Louis is now being transformed into The Delmar DivINE. Maxine says, "This is joyful work. Dream the dream-- supreme!"
Maxine Clark's Inspirations:
"Your experience is so valuable to somebody else. There's always something you can do to strengthen your community."
"Look around at what interests you, whether its non-profit or volunteering and just meet people around it. Network!"
"I like to bring experts to the table, and I also sit at the table, to make sure we find solutions and continue to move forward."
Diana Landau is the Content Wrangler for Pickleball Media. After 15 years in corporate marketing, in 2012 she pivoted to write and wrangle content for Niche Media's weekly blog. She now manages the “I Used to Be Somebody” blog.