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CCI Alumna, President & CEO of Build-a-Bear Workshop Sharon Price John to be Keynote Speaker at CCI Commencement

It should be no surprise that the president and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop had written the outline of her speech for the College of Communication & Information’s 2022 spring commencement ceremony two months in advance of the event. After all, one doesn’t become the head of a multi-million dollar company by putting things off. Doing her research and preparing ahead of time for a challenge is indicative of how Sharon Price John (’86) operates in both business and life: she likes to have a good idea of different ways to handle a situation, but understands the inevitable unpredictability of life.

“Sometimes things don’t go your way but it’s OK, because things are in constant flux. It is a mindful business aspect and that doesn’t mean you’re letting it all happen to you, but at the same time, you’re recognizing that things are happening that you don’t necessarily control,” she said. “How are you going to choose to live in the world, to be constantly battered from side to side because things are changing? Chaos creates opportunity. That’s the key to life. Not just the key to business and turnarounds.”

John, an alumna of CCI and an advertising major, admitted she’s a little nervous about being the keynote speaker for CCI’s commencement, despite extensive public speaking experience. But she’s also deeply honored to have been asked to fill this role.

Oh, someday I’ll be back to do the commencement speech, is not something you think about when you walk across the stage to receive your college diploma. But that’s what’s happening and it’s an honor,” she said.

Keeping Her Tennessee Roots

Though John now lives in St. Louis, where Build-A-Bear Workshop is headquartered, Tennessee will always be a part of her story. She comes from a long line of Tennesseans and grew up in Fayetteville before she came to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She would come back and visit Tennessee when her parents were alive, but after they both passed away she was looking for another way to reconnect with her home state. Then CCI’s approached her about creating a scholarship for CCI students in her name. This aligned with a goal John had set for herself to give back to UT and to Columbia Business School, where she earned her MBA.

“When we were discussing what we wanted to do, I thought helping someone that’s not going to get all the other scholarships—maybe the small-town middle Tennessee kid that isn’t a valedictorian or salutatorian, just an all-around student,” she said. “This could be my way to stay connected to the state.”

John, who has also served on the CCI Board of Visitors since 2015, said it’s great when universities reach out to alumni and keep them connected, and the opportunity to speak to the next generation of graduates who are entering a big new chapter of their lives is just another way she can do that.

Choosing a Career You Can Love

Since her own graduation from UT, John has had resounding career success and business turnarounds have become something of a specialty for her. When she came to Build-A-Bear in June 2013, the beloved toy and experiential retail company was in the red and needed a revamp, which she managed handedly by implementing a variety of initiatives after she came on board. The company was profitable again within a year of her arrival.

A “secret” to John’s success that shared is to only work for companies where she believes in the mission, and she thinks are fun. Before Build-A-Bear, she was president of Stride Rite Children’s Group, and prior to that, senior vice-president and general manager at Hasbro and a vice-president at V-Tech Toys and Mattel. She also worked for top advertising agencies in New York City servicing clients like Hershey and M&M Mars. If she can’t imagine someone riding a skateboard down the hall, it’s not somewhere she wants to work.

“I believe that our true goal in life is to be fulfilled and happy. There’s an old adage that if you do something you love, you never work a day in your life. That doesn’t mean you don’t have responsibilities or certain things that must be done every day or that you may not like, but it’s important to choose a path, to the degree that you can, that you love more than not. I made the choice early on that I wanted to do something that I was passionate about.” she said.

One of the fun adventures she’s had at Build-A-Bear is when she was on the show “Undercover Boss,” and was able to see first-hand what it is like to work in various positions at the company she leads. She donned a wig and a new identity to work in retail and warehouse positions to get a broader understanding of the experiences both employees and customers have at Build-A-Bear.

“It was exhausting but it was great! It was wonderful to get out and meet a lot of employees at Build-A-Bear without them knowing who I really was. I love this organization and the people who work here are full of genuine passion for this company and there’s nothing more satisfying than being face-to-face in stores with our guests and recognizing what a special place [the founder] Maxine Clark started almost 25 years ago. Now, I sit in a unique position to continue this legacy of helping kids of all ages find their own special furry friend while fulfilling our mission of adding a little more heart to life,” she said.

Besides ensuring she loves what she does, John also believes in reflecting on defining one’s own experiences in order to learn and grow. Everyone has life stories that they believe have impacted them, she says, but part of the importance of those stories is not necessarily what happened but the meaning that people have chosen for the event.

“This is old wisdom, it’s not my wisdom, it’s bigger than that. The one thing that you control is how you react to things that happen in life. We all are going to have moments that don’t make sense, where you ask “why?,” or have something that feels incredibly negative. Even in that situation, it is up to you to define what that moment means to you and it is also up to you if you learn from it, evolve from it, and grow from it. Will it be a steppingstone or a stumbling block? It’s up to you,” she said.

John believes so heavily in helping people positively impact their lives by defining and controlling their own personal narrative that she recently wrote a book about it in conjunction with Forbes Publishing that will be released later this year, “Stories & Heart: Unlocking the Power of Personal Stories to Create a Life you Love.” It’s somewhat autobiographical, with her own stories incorporated throughout the book, but it’s mostly informational, even instructional, with an aim to help readers understand how they can redefine their stories and their lives.

“I didn’t want to write a book about me or about business, per se. Of course, it is full of stories pulled from my life and career, but it is much more a book of stories about goals, dreams, failure and success that exemplify and provide insights about how you, including your decisions and beliefs, are most likely the single biggest impact concerning how your life ultimately evolves,” she said.

The Importance of Communication

Dealing with wrenches thrown into well-laid plans was a crucial skill John deployed again when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Build-A-Bear Workshop retail locations were completely closed resulting in a significant loss for the company. However, pivots were made, and the online sales grew by triple digits in 2020 while the consumer base shifted toward the tweens, teen, and adult market via a robust collectible and gifting offering.

Choosing to assess the situation through the leadership lens of possibility, even in the face of significant challenge, was a critical unlock for the company. Along with the necessary shift of business focus due to the unprecedented crisis, the company accelerated its previously stated strategic initiative of a company-wide digital transformation, delivering on a number of key milestones months before they were originally planned to be completed. However, one of the most important developments that arose from the pandemic was much more about “people” and “IT.” It was an overt effort to significantly increase communication and connection with employees, even as the entire organization had shifted to remote work. Pre-pandemic, the company held quarterly in-person meetings, but after everyone started working from home, they shifted into virtual corporate-wide meetings held almost weekly.

“It was a critical shift to be in much more frequent communication about what was going on, especially in the uncertainty. The most up-to-date information and transparency gave the team hope and a vision about our path and our plans. We also shared that our goal was not for the company to merely survive this situation, but to leverage the situation to evolve and thrive. That required that we stayed diligent and deliberate to assure that we were making choices for both the short and the long-term,” she said. To date, the company has maintained the weekly meeting cadence even though pandemic measures have relaxed because of the positive feedback concerning how much more informed and in touch people feel with the more regular meetings, albeit virtual.

It is experiences such as these which remind John how important stories and communication are. The very nature of Build-A-Bear is to create personal stories that will last, happy memories that are often marking special moments, for children and adults alike. Learning the many different roles that communication plays in both business and life, and how to master your ability to effectively communicate, is one of the most crucial pieces of advice she can give, John said.

“In my role, the job, every day, is to communicate across a variety of levels, functional areas and stakeholders. It’s not just what I say, but how I say it, and how consistently I say it,” she said. “The ability to listen, ask questions and gain understanding, followed by effective, passionate, and consistent communication is absolutely critical when the goal is to inspire and drive an organization, especially if you want to be a successful change agent or are managing a team through crisis. However, in this day and age, I fear fewer people may have the opportunity to truly hone their personal communications skills in a world of texts, tweets and email especially since the current “new normal” includes less face-to-face interaction and more virtual meetings. This shift could make the important skill of being an effective and dynamic communicator an even more critical commodity in the future.”