“Dream Like a Kid”: The Inspiring Story Behind Me & The Bees Lemonade

Nearly every kid gets stung by a bee at some point, but for Mikaila Ulmer, founder of Austin, Texas-based Me & the Bees Lemonade, it was a life-changing experience.

Mikaila was four years old when a bee delivered that first fateful sting, followed by another bee and another sting later that same week. The experiences scared her, as she explains on her website, but also piqued her interest in honeybees. Fascinated, she set out to learn more about the insects and their importance to the world’s ecosystem. At the same time, the entrepreneurial-minded child was mulling over ideas for a business competition for an upcoming Acton Children’s Business Fair and Austin Lemonade Day.

this photo shows how young Mikaila Ulmer was when she founded Me & the Bees Lemonade

Mikaila Ulmer was four years old when she started the lemonade stand that would lead to her social enterprise, Me & the Bees Lemonade.

Mikaila’s plan began to come together when her great-grandmother sent her family an old cookbook with a recipe for flaxseed lemonade. Blown away by the flavor, Mikaila set up a lemonade stand in front of her family’s home, with a rather modest goal in mind: “The first time I sold it,” she told CNBC in 2017, “I thought, ‘This is only going to be a one-time thing. I am going to do it once, get the money, donate some and then save some and then use the rest to buy this awesome toy that I wanted.’”

Related: Scottish social enterprise leads World’s Big Sleep Out to raise funds for the homeless

Now bit by the business bug, though, she was back in action six months later, making and selling more lemonade. Then, when she was seven, a local pizzeria began offering the beverage to its customers.

here we see the founder of Me & the Bees Lemonade when she was a little older

Mikaila hit upon the idea for her tasty Me & the Bees lemonade after trying out a recipe from her great-grandmother.

“That’s how Me & the Bees Lemonade was born,” Mikaila explains on her website. “It comes from my Great Granny Helen’s flaxseed recipe and my new love for bees. So that’s why we sweeten it with local honey. And today my little idea continues to grow.”

A dedicated social entrepreneur, Mikaila has sold Me & the Bees Lemonade and given speeches at youth entrepreneurial events around the country. Ten percent of her profits goes to local and international organizations, such as the Healthy Hive Foundation, that are working to save the world’s dwindling honeybee populations.

Related: Social enterprise trains blind women to detect early signs of breast cancer

Me & the Bees Lemonade products come in five flavors: Original Mint, Ginger, Iced Tea, Prickly Pear and Classic. They contain no high-fructose corn syrup, just natural sweeteners like honey, cane sugar and monk fruit.

As of July 2018, Mikaila’s beverages were available in 500 stores nationwide, according to the BBC, with sales of 360,000 bottles a year.

Whole Foods Market started carrying the Me & the Bees Lemonade brand in 2015. “Mikaila and her company caught our attention on a number of fronts,” Whole Food Market’s Jenna Gelgand told the BBC. “She had a unique product that tasted great, along with a strong passionate founder and social mission. We were immediately impressed with Mikaila as a young entrepreneur and with her vision to create awareness around the importance of pollinators.”

this photo shows Mikaila Ulmer with her Me & the Bees Lemonade bottles on supermarket shelves

Mikaila Ulmer’s lemonades can now be found in hundreds of stores around the country.

And make no mistake: Mikaila is a lot more than a cute face on a bottle. She has co-managed the mission-driven business from its inception, along with her parents, both of whom have degrees in business. “We’re considered co-CEOs because I make decisions that my parents wouldn’t make and my parents make decisions that I wouldn’t make,” she told the BBC. “Also, I am young … I know I don’t know everything, and so I am definitely going to take their advice and opinions into consideration.”

Related: This 12-year-old social entrepreneur uses bowties to help shelter animals get adopted

Mikaila’s profile rose dramatically when she appeared on “Shark Tank” in 2015, where she persuaded Daymond John of FUBU to invest $60,000. According to CNBC, the exposure sent her sales soaring by 231 percent in the next year. Meanwhile, President Obama invited her to the White House, and a consortium of former and current NFL football players kicked in for $800,000 two years later.

One of those players was former Houston Texans running back Arian Foster. “We look for companies that match our main focus of developing a good product but [that] are also good people and do it for the right reasons,” Foster told the Houston Chronicle in 2017. “It’s more than about money to us. We believe that investing in small black businesses is extremely important.”

this photo shows the kid-friendly appeal of the brand

Smart branding with a dose of cuteness has helped Me & the Bees Lemonade grow to more than 20 states.

“[Mikaila] is super smart,” Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin, another investor, said in the Chronicle interview. “She’s very special. Obviously, she has a bright future. Hopefully, I can be a part of it and nourish it and watch her grow. The sky is the limit. I’m very impressed with her.”

In a CNBC interview, Mikaila advised other aspiring entrepreneurs to focus on a business idea that they’re genuinely passionate about and that helps “solve a problem in the world that needs to be solved.”

“Dream big, and not only dream big, but also dream like a kid,” she added. “When a kid has a dream and they want it to come true, they will do whatever it takes to do so. They don’t see the obstacles in the way—they will just fight hard to make it come true. Sometimes you have to get into that mindset and dream like a kid.”

Related: Grade schoolers’ social enterprise turns a profit in 10 weeks

Social Entrepreneur Lists 5 Competitive Advantages of a Mission-Driven Business

Entrepreneurs who believe business success and social impact are mutually exclusive have a lot to learn about business success, according to a recent article on by Sean Grundy, CEO of Bevi, a social enterprise focused on eliminating single-use plastic bottles.

While no one denies that “having to succeed on two fronts makes the job of a social entrepreneur even harder” than that of a regular entrepreneur, Grundy said a thriving mission-driven business has the potential to help change the entire world for the better.

“When business interests and social or environmental interests clash, business interests usually win,” Grundy writes. “Yet when businesses truly support a cause, they can drive large-scale change quickly. And there’s no time to better embed a mission into a company than at the very start, making the mission an inseparable part of that company’s business model rather than an afterthought.”

The Bevi water dispenser

Related: Why social entrepreneurship is a smarter way of doing business

In fact, Grundy believes social enterprises have some important advantages over traditional for-profit companies, including:

  1. A better crop of job candidates. “When you can offer employees the professional development of a high-growth business with the impact of a nonprofit, you’ll be amazed by the quality of candidates who apply to your startup,” Grundy says.
  2. Brand authenticity. While many profit-driven companies hire consultants to help them invent a “mission” other than making as much money as possible, social entrepreneurs know and believe in their mission from the start. And that sort of genuineness is favored by many consumers in today’s market. “Industry incumbents may copy your product or your sales process, but they’ll never be able to capture the authenticity of your brand in customers’ eyes,” Grundy notes.
  3. Thinking bigger. Building a better world isn’t a small-scale operation. “You need to go after multibillion-dollar markets and reshape the way you do business,” Grundy writes. “In short, to really achieve your vision, you need to become a unicorn.”
  4. A stronger work ethic. “When you know your product will improve the world, you feel a moral obligation to succeed, even when the odds are stacked against you,” Grundy points out. “When you’re a mission-driven company in a sea of profit-driven competitors, you have to just keep swimming. Great investors recognize that mission-driven entrepreneurs are less likely to give up, and some even build this into their investment theses.”
  5. Far-ranging impact. Your social venture’s success will inspire other mission-driven entrepreneurs and “show them a path to success,” Grundy concludes. “If you fail, you may still lay the groundwork for a competitor to achieve your vision (which would be disappointing, but better than nothing). If you succeed, you’ll give investors more confidence that startups can, in fact, do well and do good at the same time.”

Forbes describes Grundy’s company, Bevi, as “one of the fastest-growing beverage companies in the world.” Conceived by Eliza Becton after she learned about the Pacific Garbage Patch, Bevi offers smart, eco-friendly water coolers for offices. Bevi machines allow users to mix up purified still and sparkling beverages—including both plain and flavored varieties—to create their own signature drinks with the push of a button on a touchscreen. “Our main motivation was cutting out the waste associated with plastic bottles, both from the actual manufacturing of bottles and the fact that most of them end up in landfills as well as just the trucking of full beverage bottles,” Grundy told Boston Magazine in 2015.

Bevi’s website claims the company’s beverage dispensers have “saved the waste generated by over 65 million plastic bottles.”

Why Social Entrepreneurship is a Smarter Way of Doing Business

Mission-driven businesses can make more money than traditional profit-only companies because they deliver real value to their communities, according to Henrietta Onwuegbuzie, a Lagos Business School professor and visiting senior lecturer at Yale University’s School of Management (SOM).

As Yale Insights reports, Onwuegbuzie believes social entrepreneurship marks a return to a more traditional business model. “Business, initially, was created to meet the needs of a society, but capitalism derailed that understanding,” she said. “We now believe that you set up a business to make money while nonprofits, charities and government are meant to concern themselves with impacting lives. However, business can be a tool for social transformation while remaining profitable, and we’re losing sight of this.”

In fact, companies that address social issues can have a leg up on their competitors. “Being purpose-driven, mission-driven, impact-driven helps companies grow faster and make more money,” Onwuegbuzie said.

Henrietta Onwuegbuzie

She points to highly successful corporate giants like Microsoft and Amazon as examples of businesses that have impacted society in positive ways while reaping huge profits.

The for-profit vs. nonprofit/charity dichotomy “has led to a world where businesses that could transform the world don’t because they think impact will lead to below-market returns,” said Onwuegbuzie. “On the other hand, those (nonprofits) who are impact-driven are not sustainable because they remain donor-dependent and do not have a business model to ensure their financial sustainability … Impact-driven businesses, on the other hand, are aimed at impacting lives beyond financial returns. They therefore make money while making a difference and … bridge the gap between economic growth and social development by creating shared prosperity and, consequently, a better, safer world.”

Onwuegbuzie related a story about one of her students who was strictly out to make money and doubted that his company could thrive by focusing on social impact.

“We kept going back and forth about it until he finally decided to try the idea of being value- or impact-driven,” she recalled. The man’s company, based in Nigeria, sold educational toys, including dolls, all of which were white with blue eyes and blonde hair “and did not resemble black girls.”

“It therefore occurred to him that he could produce black dolls that would not only make the black girl proud of her brown skin and curly hair but would also help them learn about the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria: Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba,” Onwuegbuzie recounted.

The Queens of Africa line of black dolls, developed by Nigerian entrepreneur Taofick Okoya, is an example of a product that has social impact while generating profits and media buzz.

“The dolls were dressed in traditional attire for each tribe, and each one came in a box with a little booklet about the culture of each tribe. A portion of the revenues from the dolls was also intended to be used to promote education. (The business owner) identified a dilapidated school in a low-income neighborhood, which he decided to renovate with some of the proceeds from the doll sales. He required the companies he engaged in the renovations to hire local people in the area and train them as they did the work. This arrangement helped build skills in these places.

“By the time the project was completed, he was listed for a state government award. Both the novelty of African dolls with African names and the good works the entrepreneur was carrying out in the community drew attention to him. He has since been interviewed by every single national newspaper, in addition to globally known media like CNN, Forbes, CNBC, and BBC Africa. He told me, ‘For 10 years, I was making money, but not even the most rickety local newspaper cared to hear my voice. Today, I’ve got a global voice because of these dolls. They have brought me more money and fame than all my other toys.’”

Here in the U.S., Toms is an example of a company that delivers value through social impact as well as profits, Onwuegbuzie noted. “The fact that when you buy a pair of Toms shoes, another pair is given to the poor makes people prefer to buy Toms. The model has made the brand popular. People choose Toms shoes because they want to be a part of doing something good.”

Photo by Nnaemeka Ugochukwu

“With purpose-driven businesses, profit ensures business sustainability,” Onwuegbuzie added. “While most social enterprises tend to avoid profits, it is important to build sustainability into a business. Profit can be considered the reward for doing good. It also allows you to expand your business, which allows you to reach and impact more people while keeping your business sustainable. Impact-driven businesses help to bridge the gap between aggressive economic growth and lagging social development.”

Onwuegbuzie called for colleges and universities worldwide to rethink their approach to educating students about entrepreneurship. “I think business schools have a major role to play in transforming society by educating students and business leaders to be impact-driven,” she told Yale Insights. “They have to be imbued with the idea that business can be a tool for social transformation aimed at providing solutions to problems. This is also a competitive strategy, as the wider the impact of the solution, the more money the business makes, because the more relevant it is, the higher will be the demand for it.”