By Krista Richmond/UGA Today
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.”
Clark’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.”
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.
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.