Build-A-Bear: Stitching in Sunshine

 In Culture

With more than 145 million furry friends behind it, Build-A-Bear is a powerhouse when it comes to spreading warm feelings in small packages. “We recognize what our role is,” says Chief Executive Officer Sharon Price John. “We’re not trying to cure some of the world’s more critical problems, but we believe that we can make your best day a little more special. We can also make a tough day a little bit better.”


Giving bear hugs

Likewise, Build-A-Bear’s charitable entities have become known for having a big heart and spreading the love around widely, to the tune of $44 million since the company’s founding in 1997. Its growth in the charitable sector, in many ways, has paralleled its rapid expansion—from a single store at the Saint Louis Galleria to its now more than 400 stores worldwide.

Earlier this year, Build-a-Bear focused its giving approach by merging its charitable entities to form the Build-a-Bear Foundation. This allows the foundation to make a bigger difference in each area it chooses to get involved. The refocused giving philosophy is an extension of the company’s overall mission statement: “Build-A-Bear adds a little more heart to life.” And, it’s a mantra that informs the Build-A-Bear Foundation’s values for making grants, which uses the acronym H.E.A.R.T.—help communities through volunteering; experience the power of teamwork; accept people’s unique differences; respect people and animals; and take the lead to drive positive change.

The company’s longtime pay-it-forward message has always centered on making small, heartfelt goals seem achievable, eventually leading kids to do bigger things as adults, John explains. “We help them to understand that even the smallest efforts do make a difference,” she says.

Engaging people, inside and out

An equally inspiring make-a-difference message has been at the heart of Build-A-Bear’s relation- ship with its customers and employees. “This part of Build-A-Bear has been there since the beginning—it’s woven into the fabric of who we are and what bear-builders do each day,” John says. One effort that shoppers will recognize again this holiday season is Toys for Tots, where guests make and then donate stuffed bears for less fortunate children. “Letting a child hold the heart and make a wish for a child in need during our signature heart ceremony is powerful,” John explains. “It doesn’t burden them with some of the harsh reali- ties, but you want them to understand that they’re pretty fortunate.”

Employees too understand how fortunate they are, and they respond by donating to the Beverly Fund, an in-house initiative that accepts anonymous requests for aid during tough times. “It’s an amazing thing when you think about it,” John says—and it’s just one example of the volunteerism and gener- osity employees have brought to the company for nearly 20 years. Fittingly for a company with strong St. Louis roots, the giving spirit remains especially strong locally, with on-the-ground volunteerism by employees as well as broader efforts with organizations like the local United Way.

“In the past, Maxine Clark, who is the founder of Build-A-Bear, was always very philanthropic from a corporate perspective but also from a personal perspective,” says John. “It has been an important foundational element of Build-A-Bear from the beginning and continues still today.”

This story appeared in the November 2015 issue.

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