Maxine Clark has been called a leader and entrepreneur by many people throughout her career – from her early work climbing up the corporate retail ladder to become President of Payless ShoeSource, to her wild success founding and growing Build-A-Bear Workshop, to her current philanthropic efforts through the Clark-Fox Family Foundation as well as her expansive list of Board and Council service.
Mrs. Clark has supported several nonprofit projects in St. Louis that have also received financing and real estate services from IFF – notably, KIPP Inspire Academy and Urban Sprouts Child Development Center. These days, she’s birddogging the creation of the Delmar DivINe – a massive mixed-use real estate development for social innovators that will feature shared working spaces for nonprofits.
IFF: You’re a big supporter of the Delmar DivINe. What is it, and why is it important for St. Louis?
Clark: As a donor, I go around to many nonprofit agencies and meet with all these wonderful people – but I spend half my day in my car. At some point, I started to think: What if we could all work closer together in an environment where we could share resources?
When the Clark-Fox Family Foundation invested in the opening of KIPP St. Louis, I drove through this neighborhood where the so-called “Delmar Divide” is located along Delmar Avenue – basically the divide between north and south, and black and white. A huge old hospital there was closing, and it was almost impossible to imagine it as anything but a hospital. It could be a huge eyesore for years – or, it could turn into a resource for collective impact. So many times it seems like old historic buildings like this are demolished and turned into affordable housing or some other commercial use; we can certainly use more affordable housing, but that’s not the only thing this neighborhood needs.
The “I-N” in DivINe stands for investment and innovation. Our project will be partially affordable housing for teachers, nurses, social workers, public health workers. And it’ll also be office space for nonprofits. And it’ll be office space for those who serve nonprofits – accounting firms, marketing firms, PR firms. The nonprofits located there won’t have to use those service providers, but we think it will make things easier for all of them to have many resources all in one place. They’ll also have common spaces – conference rooms, training centers, webinar technology. So, if you think your nonprofit needs 5,000 square feet because you need a big conference room, maybe you only need to get 4,500 square feet because you can use the shared conference room instead. If you need a big training center that’s 10,000 square feet, but you can’t afford to build a state-of-the-art facility that big, you can leverage the shared space instead. Most nonprofits don’t use these kinds of spaces 365 days per year, so sharing just makes sense. It’s a leveraging idea to use this gigantic space that would otherwise go to dust.
We’re currently working on the capital stack, as well as all of the designations and approvals that you have to get from the city, state, and federal governments. It’s a big undertaking – today alone I’ve been in three meetings about this – with lots of stakeholders you have to keep in tune with each other. We’re on track with our plan to open in spring 2020.
IFF: You’re especially passionate about PK-12 education in St. Louis. Why is education so important to you?
Clark: I had great teachers. My teachers inspired me. My parents inspired me too, but they were first generation immigrants in this country, and they didn’t have a college education. It was my teachers that pushed me to be all that I could be, that opened up new doors and horizons for me. So it’s my way of paying that back. I want everyone to have as good as a public education as I had – I lived in a middle-class neighborhood, went to public education my whole life. Teachers are my heroes.
My high school journalism teacher – she challenged me in ways I had never been challenged. In those days our teachers let us use their cars to go sell advertising or to go to the printers. One day I was bringing the keys back to the teachers’ lounge, and I overheard a conversation about teacher pay. They said the janitors were making more money than the teachers, and I just couldn’t believe it. I told my mom, and she told me I better write about that. So I did a bunch of research – no Internet in those days, but my mother drove me to the Department of Education – and found out it wasn’t just happening at my school, but at lots of schools. And I wrote an editorial about it that was really controversial. My teacher, Mrs. Adams, submitted that editorial to an award that got me some funding to go to college. So it really was her that really pushed my envelope and encouraged me.
When I took Build-a-Bear public, I went to find my teachers because I wanted to pay them back. But none of them would take it. And Mrs. Adams said: ‘Don’t give it to me, give it to Teach for America or some organization that’s helping young teachers.’ They all said something like that – ‘just do something good with it in my honor.’ So I did.
IFF: When you graduated from college in 1971, you “wanted to do anything women weren’t doing at the time” (March 2012 profile in Fortune). Today, you are especially supportive of businesses that are owned/operated by women and minorities. How much are these two facts related? Did you experience challenges as a woman in the business world?
Clark: One thing that’s really important about this is that no matter where you start, the journey is better than the destination. When I got out of college, I wanted to be a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C. I started to go to law school, and I needed to go to work to afford to go to law school. So I got a job working as a trainee for the Hecht Company department store – then a part of May Co., which is now Macy’s – and I worked as an assistant buyer for a wonderful man who was willing to teach me everything. Unfortunately, just a few months after I started, he had a heart attack and couldn’t work for a while, so I was there by myself. His boss asked me to fill in for him, so I took a leave of absence from law school – which I’m still on, by the way.
I ended up going on this journey toward a different role than I had ever imagined. Everybody wanted me to be successful while my boss was recovering. I learned so much because I knew nothing. When he came back, they offered me a bigger job – not to be an assistant buyer, but to be a buyer. In that 4-5 months that I was filling in for him, I was learning so much that it never occurred to me to ask for more money; I just loved that I was learning and growing.
I never went back to law school. That was when I started on my track to be very successful in the retail business. One great thing about the retail business is that it measures success every day – what were sales last year on Monday, what were sales this year on Monday? You can see how you’re doing. Being in a results-oriented business, my skillsets became more important than my gender, my looks, or how tall I was. I happen to be 4’10” and a pretty average person, but my results were fantastic. I encourage all women, and all young people, to get in a job where your results are measured and you have goals where you can achieve or succeed.
IFF: Like IFF and so many nonprofits across the country, the Clark-Fox Family Foundation is focused on social and racial equity. How is the foundation tackling this massive challenge?
Clark: My husband is very involved in mass incarceration, and the foundation has staff working on that. We have a very successful training that we have given to thousands of people – primarily focused on working to educate average citizens who don’t pay attention to this issue. Most people think they are law-abiding citizens – if they pay their rent on time and don’t get speeding tickets, they don’t even brush with the law. But the reality is white people are not encumbered by the law in the same way black people are. A black person could be driving down the street with their blinker on, and they get stopped, and you just don’t know what that will turn into. Or they could be applying for housing and get dismissed by a lot of places on sight. This is not equity. How do you explain that to people who just don’t get it? And how do you explain it to people who do get it, but still don’t know what to do about it? That’s what we’re working on.
We also work on projects related to education equity – how to make sure more people in our community have access to things that will make their family life better and their children’s life experience better. One of our successful projects is Blueprint4Summer.com, where you can access all of the summer camps in St. Louis and sort them by before/after care, transportation, scholarships, costs, all kinds of things. Our goal was to help make sure everyone in St. Louis – regardless of income – has access to same quality programs for their children. We did a lot of advertising on buses and billboards and schools, especially in the lower-income areas. This is our fourth summer, we have over 8,500 camps in our system and over $100,000 of scholarships. Our data shows that people are really using it – about 50 percent of them were from our target area – and we have heard from some people that it helped their kids go to camp for the first time.
At the end of every summer, we hold a big summit with all our camps to share some things we learned from the data behind the application. One thing we found was that a lot of people were searching for a camp in a certain neighborhood that didn’t have one. The people running the camps had no way of knowing that there was a demand there before we could show them.
Now we’re getting inquiries from other places – we opened our second location in Colorado, while Virginia, Detroit, and Kansas City are interested in adopting our web-based app too. In order to make this technology, you’d have to spend well over six figures; but now that we’ve already created a really good platform, we can leverage it in other places, and that’s really important to make life better for more kids and more families.
IFF: For you, what are the defining characteristics of someone who is a leader or entrepreneur?
Clark: It may sound simple, but one trait of a successful person is someone who’s willing to take notes. Entrepreneurs are smart, but they have a lot of things on their brain, so they need to write it down. They know they don’t know everything, and they want to know more. They ask a lot of questions, they’re good listeners, and they’re taking notes.
In my world, I look for someone who has insatiable curiosity – that’s a real leadership thing for me. Someone who is a lifelong learner and isn’t afraid to learn from anyone who’s willing to teach. There’s definitely a humility there versus an arrogance.
I started Build-a-Bear when I was 48 years old, and even though I was starting my own business – even though I had already run a huge, multi-billion-dollar business – I still didn’t know everything. Many people helped me and gave me good advice. So when I meet young people who are just starting out, and they don’t take notes and they don’t ask questions, I go crazy. They are wasting the opportunity to always be growing.