Maxine Clark joins online class for a talk on social entrepreneurship and Build-A-Bear

Under any other circumstances, the classroom guest in Doug Villhard’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship class would have been impressive—but not noteworthy. Maxine Clark, founder of St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear Workshop, is a WashU Olin booster, a friend of the university and a frequent guest speaker in Olin classrooms.

But on Thursday, March 26, she joined a mosaic of students in a Zoom video classroom—another example of students, instructors and special guests making the Olin experience work in the midst of a global pandemic.

On the fourth day of online instruction after the campus closed to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Clark shared the story of how she created her Build-A-Bear concept. Nearly 30 MBA students aimed their webcams at the St. Louis entrepreneur and dropped questions into a chat window.

The focus of the class was social entrepreneurship—an area where Clark has been active since retiring as Build-A-Bear’s CEO in 2013. But first, there were questions about her big retail hit.

“I wanted to ask if the original idea of Build-A-Bear was the idea that was launched,” wrote Derek Leiter, MBA ’21. “Or did the idea change (like most of ours in class have) after researching the market?”

Maxine Clark (center, right column) shares a slide from her presentation about the day she appeared on Oprah’s television show as she was ramping up new Build-A-Bear Workshop stores.

Clark said the more people who got involved, the more the concept evolved. For example, store patrons who build their own teddy bears carry out a step that wasn’t part of the original idea: including a small red heart with the bear’s stuffing.

“Someone else came up with the idea of the heart,” Clark said. “We had no idea people would grab onto the idea like they did. People started putting three and four hearts in a bear. They’d put a wish on the heart. We got so many ideas from our customers.”

Dean Mark P. Taylor also stopped by the class for a few minutes to bid Clark and the students a hello. He thanked Clark for visiting the class under today’s unusual circumstances and thanked everyone for how they’ve adapted. “Today’s a great example where we have a great class and a great entrepreneur who can share her experience,” Taylor said. Later, in the classroom’s chat, he said, “So proud of you guys.”

Clark also spoke to the class about Delmar Divine, a project to rehabilitate the former home of the St. Louis region’s St. Luke’s Hospital—north of Delmar Boulevard and east of DeBaliviere. Her vision is to convert the building into “Cortex for nonprofits,” referring to a St. Louis-area business incubator. Delmar Divine would include retail, housing and office space and is planned to open in the summer of 2021.

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