Women In Leadership Series: Maxine Clark, Founder, Build-A-Bear

This post is part of a series. To read the introduction, click here.

What has your career path looked like? I started my business career as an executive trainee at May Department Stores in Washington, D.C., after college to earn the money I needed to pay for law school. I loved the job, and I took a leave of absence from law school that I’m still on to this day. I loved the creativity and the way it put all of my creative and analytical skills into play. In the process I was able to hone my leadership skills by learning from far more experienced people what to do—and, equally as important, what not to do—and developed my own collaborative and inclusive style.

Who or what influenced the path you chose? The journey for me was far better than the destination. I’d always wanted to be a lawyer, but on the way found my true passion. My college marketing professor told me to get a job in retail. I took his advice, and it was a wide open door to the rest of my life. Retail is a business of results (everyday sales), so with my success very visible to my bosses, I was rewarded with more and more responsibility.

Have you had any particularly helpful mentors? My teachers were my first mentors. They taught me to be curious, and that became my superpower. My investors for Build-A-Bear were phenomenal mentors and taught me so much about public markets and applying skills from multiple companies into my own. These days, I may technically be a mentor, but I learn so much from my mentees. 

What advice would you offer to young women considering a career in finance? Understand what finance supports. Finance doesn’t run companies. It supports companies with good fiscal controls and enablers that allow the business to ebb and flow as needed and to be sure the capital is there for the needs of the business. The business is actually run by the clients or consumers. Without them, there is no business. The best finance executives I’ve worked with in retail have loved the merchandising side and being engaged at the table of driving business—not just controlling it.

Have you encountered any barriers that are particular to women? It was much harder for women to raise money in 1997 when I started Build-A-Bear, and that remains true today. However, women know what the market wants and needs. I’m seeing more and more women on the banking and venture capital side of the business and that’s good. They need to use their women’s intuition more. Men and women both have the brains to be great at finance but women have the secret sauce of a special intuition. USE IT!

Up next: Stephanie Siders, Vice President, CC Capital Advisors on March 22.