How a Journalism student sold over 145 million Teddy Bears…

(This is the first part of a weekly series that will feature the story of an accomplished university graduate with a special emphasis on the major they chose in college and how it impacted their career)

By Malinda Inthirath

How many journalism students in college think that one day they will be selling teddy bears for a living? Probably not many. Maxine Clark didn’t think so either, but that’s why her story is the perfect example of studying a certain major in college and ending up in a completely unexpected place.

Maxine went from studying advertising through Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia to becoming one of the biggest innovators in the retail industry. After graduating with a journalism degree in 1971, she went on to work for various retailers and then ultimately founded the huge teddy bear retailer — Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997. So how did she go from a degree in journalism to building this multi-billion dollar stuffed animal empire?

The Start of it All

Maxine always knew she wanted to study journalism. She loved the world of creative and thought-provoking work. During her undergrad years she was able to study communications in general, from news writing to public relations to advertising. Eventually, she focused her concentration on advertising.

“I loved the creative side of copy writing, branding and product/campaign creation. My college advertising and marketing professors gave me many hands-on experiences that I loved and changed my area of concentration from news writing to advertising. I loved creating campaigns that would sell huge amounts of products. Being results oriented really agreed with me.”

During college Maxine could see herself becoming a lawyer or a journalist. She wasn’t sure which path would be right, but she admits that her real dream job was to be a news writer and editor for the New York Times because writing was a passion.

“I loved writing. Law required research and writing skill. I am visual and conceptual; I could see a story in my head as it unfolded. I also loved problem solving which is a lot of what a lawyer does. By the time I graduated from college I had decided law would be a great career — the times dictated I would be in civil rights, but I had to get a job to pay for law school.”

So how did her career kick off after graduating from the University of Georgia? Did she go to law school? Did she become editor of the New York Times?

She didn’t do either.

Onto a Different Path

As graduation neared, she started applying to jobs and realized the need to save up money. After a suggestion from one of her professors, she looked into applying for jobs in corporate retail. To every job she applied to, she was accepted.

At around the same time, Maxine decided to leave the South and head over to our nation’s capital.

Washington D.C. was where the action was for law and she still dreamt of going to law school after saving money from work.

She got her first job in the executive training department of the The Hecht Co. in D.C. — now Macy’s, calling it the “perfect job” for her. She loved what she did so much she decided not to chase after the law degree.

145 Million Teddy Bears Later…

Maxine’s success at Hecht’s led her to several promotions, bringing her to May Co., the parent company of Hecht’s, headquartered in St. Louis where she was able to grow even more.

As she was worked for May Co., she was promoted to president of Payless — a national discount shoe retailer.

This eventually led to her decision to start her own business. In 1996, she left her position as the president of Payless and went off to start her own business. She knew it would be for kids, but wasn’t sure of what she wanted it to be.

With her experience in retail and insight into the desires of the American consumer she founded Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997.

There are now over 400 Build-A-Bear Workshop stores worldwide, having sold over 145 million stuffed animals, with cumulative sales exceeding $5 billion.

She had an idea and she made it happen, step-by-step.

Even though Maxine didn’t become a journalist nor a lawyer, she utilized what she learned in college and built a successful brand.

“Journalists are communicators and that is what a leader does — has a vision of what is possible and helps others see it too. My ability to conceive ideas and then communicate them to others and my incredible curiosity has helped me be successful. I use what I learned in journalism school every single day.”

It’s not about what you study in college, it’s about how you apply what you learn in everything you do, which will ultimately lead you to success.

Some Advice for You

As the spring semester progresses, graduating seniors are applying for jobs, others are looking for internships. Maxine leaves all of us with some advice as we begin our journey into our careers.

“Be open minded. Know what you are good at and what you are passionate about. Get experience any way you can. Those experiences will help you forge a path you intended or one where you learned more about yourself and took a different path. The journey is far better than the destination!”

In 2013, Maxine stepped down as CEO of Build-A-Bear to pursue her passion in improving public education and to invest in and mentor women and minority entrepreneurs. She is the CEO of Clark-Fox Family Foundation and on the Board of Directors for Build-A-Bear, along with Footlocker, Inc. and Gymboree. She holds an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from St. Louis University.

You can see some of her musings and writing through her blog and Twitter.

Have questions or comments about Maxine’s story? Leave them below.

Our next story about a Religion and Telecom major rising to the top of the Digital Media Industry, will go live next week.

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