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Maxine Clark: The curious entrepreneur

UGA alumna finds creative ways to make the world a little better

This story is part of a series, called Georgia Groundbreakers that celebrates innovative and visionary faculty, students, alumni and leaders throughout the history of the University of Georgia – and their profound, enduring impact on our state, our nation and the world.

Maxine Clark’s superpower isn’t giving figurative life to teddy bears.

It’s her curiosity.

“I always wanted to know how things work,” she said. “I was always asking why, and I think that’s what entrepreneurs do. They’re trying to find a solution to a problem.”

Georgia GroundbreakersClark’s sense of curiosity led her on a journey from working an early job at a department store company to founding Build-A-Bear Workshop to redeveloping a dilapidated hospital in St. Louis into a collaborative, mixed-use development that includes living spaces and provides office space, along with shared services and other resources, for nonprofits, foundations and community support organizations.

“Everything is a step toward where you’re meant to go,” she said. “The path is part of a grand scheme that somebody has for us, and how we fall into it is up to our attitude in life.”

Growing up in a time of change

Clark, who earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1971, is the founder and CEO of the Clark-Fox Family Foundation, and family was her first influence.

In particular, Clark’s mother, Anne, who served as Eleanor Roosevelt’s private traveling secretary during World War II, left a lasting impact.

“She went everywhere that Eleanor went and saw the problems of the world through Eleanor’s eyes,” Clark said.

Her mother witnessed Roosevelt’s efforts to find where the problems were in the community and solve them, and that inspired her own action. She and her friends started a school in Miami for children with Down syndrome.

“Almost all of the great movements in our time were started by women,” Clark said. “Women have always had that power, but it was usually as a volunteer. That’s very entrepreneurial. You bring a bunch of women together, you brainstorm, and you come up with a lot of ideas and find solutions.”

Maxine Clark’s mother, Anne, in the white jacket, served as Eleanor Roosevelt’s private traveling secretary during World War II. (Submitted photo)

Education also played a large role in her life. In fact, she is still in touch with some of her former teachers.

One particular teacher left a lasting impression. Her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Grace, graded papers with a red pencil, which she would sharpen to a fine point every Friday. At about 2:15 p.m., she would give that coveted pencil away—not to the best student or the best behaved, but to the student who made the most mistakes that week. It helped Clark and her classmates see that while the goal is to be correct, real effort will be rewarded.

“I learned early that it was OK to make mistakes, and it’s OK to try,” she said.

Clark, who grew up in Miami, started her college career at the University of Florida, intending to become a civil rights lawyer. But she had served as her high school newspaper’s editor and developed an interest in advertising and marketing. The blend of psychology with writing and selling skills, as well as opportunities to look at trends and consumer behavior, intrigued her.

One of her professors at the University of Florida had accepted a new position at the University of Georgia and suggested that she transfer to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She arrived on campus in 1969 during what she said were “tumultuous times” that gave her a perspective that she wouldn’t have otherwise.

“I feel fortunate to have grown up in a time when so much change was going on,” she said.

Creating something better

Clark, left, meets with executives at the May Department Stores Co. and others in the early 1980s. (Submitted photo)

After her graduation from UGA, she moved to Washington, D.C., to go to law school and took a job with the May Department Stores Co. to pay for it. Not long after Clark started that job, her boss took a leave of absence, and she was asked to fill in. She decided to take a leave of absence from her plans to go to law school and fill in for her boss. Clark said she is still on that leave today.

She quickly learned what she needed to know and rose through the ranks. From there, she worked with Lerner Inc., and Venture Stores. In 1992, she was named president of Payless ShoeSource.

“I didn’t know to be intimidated,” she said. “I just loved my business and wanted to know everything about it.”

In 1996, she started looking for new opportunities, specifically one that would combine traditional business with the emerging internet capabilities. One day, Clark went shopping with Katie, the 10-year-old daughter of a coworker and friend she’s still close with today. Katie was looking for Beanie Babies but having trouble finding the one she wanted. Eventually she said to Clark, “These are so easy that we could make them.”

Katie meant a craft project. But Clark heard something different.

“My brain went off, kind of like Willy Wonka, and I saw a much bigger opportunity,” she said. “The best ideas are staring you in the face.”

Nine months later, she opened her first Build-A-Bear Workshop, an interactive experience where guests create customizable furry friends. That idea of letting customers make their own creation was unique and built a following. Today, nearly 200 million stuffed animals have been sold worldwide, online and at more than 400 brick-and-mortar retail locations.

“When customers are involved, that builds a higher passion for the product, which creates long-term memories. This allows companies to build brand loyalty by giving customers a unique experience,” said Sundar Bharadwaj, Coca-Cola Company Chair of Marketing in the Terry College of Business. “Build-A-Bear Workshop was one of the first to let customers create their own experience. It has become part of people’s growing-up memories, and that builds loyalty that will span across generations.”

Clark rings the NYSE bell in 2004. (Submitted photo)

Clark is the first to say that she didn’t invent teddy bears. But she’s a firm believer that ideas that have already been invented can be reinvented. Like Howard Schultz with Starbucks and Ray Kroc with McDonald’s before her, it was all about inventing ways to make their product categories better.

“Something always comes first, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it better,” she said. “I don’t look at challenge the way everybody else does. I see opportunities. Everything is a learning experience.”

Making a difference

Oprah joined Clark and the Build-A-Bear Workshop team in Africa. (Submitted photo)

In June 2013, Clark stepped down from her Chief Executive Bear role to focus on making a difference. Her first project with the Clark-Fox Family Foundation launched in 2015. is a free and easy-to-use mobile app designed to help all families navigate the best summer activities, pre-college programs and career options for their family.

Clark said she believes everyone deserves a quality education and has worked to make that happen. She has served on national and local boards for Teach for America, and she and her husband, Bob Fox, are founding donors of KIPP St. Louis Public Schools, part of a national nonprofit network of college-preparatory, public charter schools.

“All kinds of things are possible when you create those opportunities for all children. You just have to give them the tools to find out what they’re passionate about,” she said. “Every child has gifts.”

Clark’s accolades include Grady College’s Dean’s Medal. (Submitted photo)

For Clark, education extends beyond the classroom. Mentors like her first boss played a significant role in her life, and she’s paying it forward by doing the same thing for women and minority entrepreneurs. For example, she is 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.

But Clark gains just as much from being a mentor as her mentees gain from the expertise she shares with them.

“Mentoring is a two-way street. You have to be open to be coached, to observe, to listen and to learn, and the other person has to be willing to share with you as much as you’re capable of absorbing,” she said. “I get so much value out of it, and I learn so much.”

Mentoring is just one way for Clark to stay involved. She sits on the board of directors of Build-A-Bear Workshop, Footlocker Inc., Big Dot of Happiness, the local and national boards for PBS and the New America Foundation.

Learn more about the outstanding UGA men and women in the Georgia Groundbreakers series.

­­­Her latest venture is Delmar DivINe, a $100 million collaborative space “dedicated to maximizing the human and financial capital of St. Louis’ social initiatives and institutions.” It’s scheduled to open this year and is housed in an historic hospital—about 450,000 square feet—that will have a variety of nonprofit tenants.

“I want to make a big difference for this community; they’ve become my friends,” she said. “We need to bridge more communities together.”