Build-A-Bear CEO: Why women need to take risks in business

June 10, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Jay Beauvais — Build-A-Bear Workshop

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important for women to take risks in business? is written by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Recently, I made a speech at the Columbia Women in Business (CWiB) conference where I was being honored as a distinguished alumnae from Columbia Business School. I was asked to base the presentation on the theme of the event, “Dare to Disrupt,” which made me think about the importance of taking calculated risks–particularly for women in business. I set the tone with the following quote from the 1577 poem Disturb Us by the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake: “Disturb us to dare more boldly to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery; where in losing sight of land we shall find the stars.”

“Dare to Disrupt”, or to “disturb” as noted above, is an intriguing concept. When you think about “daring” it brings to mind being bold or taking a risk. And when you hear the now almost overused term of “disruption” it usually means to interrupt the market status quo or a competitor’s status quo. As someone who has built a career as a “change agent” for brands and business units at companies including Hasbro and Wolverine Worldwide, I certainly understand that type of disruption. However, looking back on when I took certain risks or chose to interrupt a status quo, I discovered that the most meaningful impacts for me were not made when I disrupted a business situation, but instead when I chose to disrupt my own status quo.

In fact, choosing to go to Columbia Business School was one of the most disruptive risks I have ever taken. At the time of the decision I was working at a top 10 advertising agency in New York City and, in three years had moved from an assistant account executive trainee to the account supervisor on M&M/Mars Snickers business, the world’s largest candy bar. I was “living the dream” in my mind and very happy. I questioned if taking two years out of my career and spending a significant amount of money for an MBA would ever pay off. My decision became even more difficult when I was offered a raise and a promotion not to go back to school.

As unlikely as it sounds, I chose to go to business school because it was a disruptive risk–and although arguably counter-intuitive, I chose specifically to go to Columbia because it was out of my comfort zone. Columbia Business School is a quantitative powerhouse full of future investment bankers, financial analysts, and consultants. That was not exactly “me.” In fact, I had started on the creative side of advertising before jumping to the account management side.

Well, not only did I learn about business, but through a rigorous diet of case studies and critical thinking, I absorbed a wide array of knowledge from the basics of accounting to the fundamentals of finance, which have been instrumental to my success in my current role and previous ones. Surprisingly, though, I also learned that the value of my so-called “soft skills” including creative thinking, marketing, communications, leadership, and passion were just as important in getting things done in business as the “hard skills.” Sometimes even more important. Additionally, business school “demystified” the quantitative side of things and gave me the confidence to compete later on with more traditionally skilled candidates, ultimately enabling me to rise to my current position as the CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop. So yes–I believe the investment paid off.

I have always been intrigued by the basic truth and timelessness of what author and mythologist Joseph Campbell has now famously popularized in his construct of the Hero’s Journey. Basically, time and again in life and lore, to become self-actualized one must: 1) be called to the journey 2) fight the challenge 3) go into the abyss 4) emerge transformed and 5) return evolved. My years at Columbia Business School were a mini “hero’s journey.” I was called to a journey and emerged transformed–ready for a new level of experience because of the learning and confidence I acquired on the journey.

So when you are thinking about your career path and development, have a willingness to keep accepting the call to the journey and fighting through the abyss. Whether it’s a new assignment, an international experience, or returning to get your MBA–weigh the risks, yes, but also look for reasons to “go for it.” We often spend so much time creating a thousand reasons why we can’t do something, we forget that we can, and in doing so, lose out on the very process that transforms us and prepares us for the next challenge.

Sir Francis Drake’s beautiful lines penned so long ago reminds us of one of the great human dilemmas: we are driven to maintain comfort and status quo yet require risk, disruption, and discomfort to reach our potential. So don’t sit around waiting for a disruption to force you to take a risk, instead of being called to your “hero’s journey,” seek it out, enable it, even create it. Take the risk to venture into wider seas, and weather the storm so you can more readily find the stars.

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