Maxine Clark, who founded Build-A-Bear Workshop and built the customizable teddy bear retailer into a national chain, has turned her attention to a different kind of building with her latest venture. Clark is leading the Delmar Divine project, which is converting an old St. Louis hospital into a mixed-use innovation hub with an array of nonprofit tenants.
Clark shared her vision for the project and discussed lessons from her years as an entrepreneur during a University of Missouri System event on March 10.
Delmar Divine is slated to open this fall, Clark said. The building is located along Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis. Its name is a reference to the so-called Delmar Divide, which has historically marked a racial and economic dividing line in St. Louis. Clark hopes this project can help change people’s perceptions of the neighborhood.
“(The building) is going to be apartments, affordable apartments for teachers, nurses, social workers, public health, public safety, young, diverse professionals that want to live in a cool place,” Clark said.
Clark said that she bought the building about five years ago and planned to make it home to nonprofit organizations, foundations and community support organizations.
“Not only are we gonna have the nonprofits in the apartments,” she said. “We’re also gonna have retail on the main floor, a bank, the first black-owned pharmacy in St. Louis in 50 years. We’re gonna have a … personal finance office there, because there’s lots of people that need that starting to invest and starting to invest in their future.”
Hear more: The Speaking Startup podcast looks at Maxine Clark’s latest venture
At the event, Clark also reflected on other parts of her career. She shared with the students how curiosity has moved her forward.
“Always ask questions. No one expects you to know it all,” she said. “And in that question, and you’re gonna learn something that you didn’t know, and that’s going to give you more confidence to go to the next step or the next step. That’s what learning is all about. And it’s lifelong.”
Clark also suggested that the students should actively seek opportunities to network and build mentor relationships.
“Using your network and making sure there’s somebody that you think you really would want as a mentor, that you think will be honest with you, that you will be able to take their honest feedback and deal with it in the most appropriate way,” she said. “That’s also always sometimes a challenge. But generally speaking, people want to help. They want you to be successful.”
Clark also is a board member for Foot Locker, the sportswear and footwear retail chain.
She told the students who would like to start their own business that it is important to create special experiences for customers.
“Foot Locker creates an experience that you can go in there and buy your shoes and come out feeling like, you know, they were worth it,” she said. “And I think that’s what you want to feel when you spend your money with somebody. … They made you feel special; they made you feel like it was worth it.”
The key to creating those experiences is to hear what customers say about your business.
“They’re writing you letters, they’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook commenting on businesses every single day. It’s free,” she said. “They’re giving you free feedback, and you learn as much from the negative comments, maybe more than you do that from the positive comments.”