Many entrepreneurs get their start after college, but not Mikaila Ulmer.
The Austin, Texas, girl founded a successful company, Me & the Bees Lemonade, securing a $60,000 investment on the TV show “Shark Tank” and a contract with Whole Foods. She’s been featured on “Good Morning America” and NBC News, and in Forbes and Time magazines. She was named among the Top 25 People Shaping Retail’s Future by the National Retail Foundation, spoke onstage with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella before 15,000 people at the WE Day Seattle conference in 2016, and introduced President Barack Obama at the 2016 United State of Women Summit.
And all this before her 13th birthday.
The path to CEO started in a most unlikely way for the 12-year-old, after she was stung by a bee twice in a week at age 4. Her parents suggested she channel her newfound fear into a research project, so Mikaila began reading about bees and was soon fascinated by them — and concerned about their dwindling numbers.
At the same time, her great-grandmother, who passed away in late 2016, sent the family a 1940s cookbook that included her recipe for flaxseed lemonade. Mikaila’s parents had been encouraging her to make a product for the Acton Children’s Business Fair and Austin Lemonade Day, and suddenly, she had a sweet idea.
“I learned that bees are dying at an alarming rate, so we need to save them,” she says. “Because of my research, I decided to start a business that could save the bees and use my great-granny Helen’s recipe as well.”
Mikaila was soon selling her flaxseed and honey-sweetened beverage at events and her own lemonade stand. With the help of parents Theo and D’Andra Ulmer, the budding social entrepreneur and bee ambassador started her company in 2009 at the age of 4, growing it into a thriving enterprise that donates a percentage of its profits to organizations working to save honeybees.
The company’s evolution has surprised Theo Ulmer, who initially saw his daughter’s venture as a valuable learning opportunity and a way to foster positive relationships.
“I don’t know that I foresaw anything of this magnitude when we started, not at all,” he says. “But Mikaila has always been impressive in that regard. I’m not surprised that it was something that if she put her mind to it, she would be a success at it.”
But the path to profitability has had some bumps — most notably, when the company had to change its original name, BeeSweet Lemonade, in 2016 over a trademark issue. Mikaila came up with the name, which signified both her personal mission and a plea to the world to be kind to bees, and she had an emotional connection with it.
“She had to work hard to let something go that she’d grown comfortable with,” Ulmer says.
The brand-savvy businesswoman got to work on finding a new name, soliciting suggestions from contacts and customers and holding informal focus groups with her classmates. It was a challenging time, Ulmer says, but one that led to personal and professional growth.
Entrepreneurs hold the American dream, and the biggest dreamers are kids. We dream big.
“She got a lot of support from people during the process, and that really helped her,” he says. “It brought people into the story, and I think that helped her to become a lot more comfortable with what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.”
Whole Foods began selling Mikaila’s lemonade, then she pitched her product to a panel of investors on the reality show “Shark Tank” in 2015. She convinced Daymond John, the CEO of clothing company FUBU, to invest $60,000 for a 25 percent stake in the company. Whole Foods now sells Me & the Bees lemonade in almost 20 states, and the company scored a distribution deal with United Natural Foods.
I think what people recognize most about Mikaila is that she’s not just in this to create revenue, but she’s also in it to solve a bigger problem.
The exposure led to invites from the White House, first in 2015 for the annual kids’ “state dinner,” then to the following year’s White House Easter Egg Roll, where Mikaila served up her lemonade and popsicles to about 10,000 guests as one of the event’s celebrity chefs. Her first time meeting the president was intimidating, she admits.
“I’d never met Mr. Obama yet, and we all know that he’s very important. I was definitely nervous,” she says.
Not so when the then 11-year-old introduced President Obama at the women’s summit in June 2016. Wearing a white, eyelet-trimmed dress with sandals and a matching hair wrap in her trademark yellow, she delivered an impassioned speech about entrepreneurship with poise and confidence beyond her years.
“Entrepreneurs hold the American dream, and the biggest dreamers are kids,” Mikaila said, to applause and cheers. “We dream big. We dream about things that don’t even exist yet. We believe in our dreams. We jump out of bed in the morning because we had the craziest idea and can’t wait to grab a notebook and get started. We believe in the impossible. We see possibilities, while others just see problems.”
Obama strode onto the stage a few minutes later, clearly impressed.
“What an amazing young lady,” he said, then quipped, “I will be back on the job market in seven months, so I hope she’s hiring.”
She may well be. The company’s lemonade, made at a commercial facility near San Antonio, Texas, is sold at a growing number of grocery shops, coffee shops and natural and organic food stores nationwide. Aside from lemonade — currently available in flavors with mint, ginger, iced tea and prickly pear — the company’s products include tote bags, ball caps and gift sets. And Mikaila is always thinking bigger, Ulmer says.
“She’ll tell you, ‘I want to see my lemonade product global, but I also want to have brand extensions,’” he says. “To have someone at her age talking about brand extensions and different lines of business that she wants to get into, all integrated and interrelated with her current product, that’s surprising.”
Me & the Bees is at a key juncture, with opportunities for growth and the attendant challenges of taking a family-run venture to the next level as a viable commercial enterprise. It set a goal of quadrupling sales annually, but achieving that will require scaling up production and expanding distribution. The company is also competing with major beverage manufacturers that have large budgets to pay for marketing and in-store demos that can attract customers and boost sales.
Technology is helping to facilitate the day-to-day operations — the family uses various Microsoft apps and programs to collaborate, keep in touch and create presentations, and the company increasingly relies on technology to support sales and automate some processes.
Managing home life, full-time work and a growing company is a constant balancing act for the family, which also includes 9-year-old Jacob, the company photographer, and Khalil, 21, who is studying computer science in college. D’Andra runs business operations and manages the household, while Theo works full-time as a program manager at Dell and processes orders for Me & the Bees at night, sometimes working 20-hour days. Trips for Mikaila’s speaking engagements often double as mini-vacations, with the family spending an extra day or two sightseeing together in a new city.
“That’s one of the ways we find balance,” D’Andra Ulmer says.
For Mikaila, life as a seventh-grade CEO involves some tradeoffs. After school, when her peers are playing sports or hanging out, she usually heads to the company office with one or both parents to do homework or attend to business — maybe an interview or photo shoot, or dealing with a production or distribution issue. The family often travels on weekends, visiting prospective retailers or taking Mikaila to speaking engagements. Sleepovers and birthday parties are sometimes passed up, school occasionally missed.
“When I’m traveling during school, it is hard because there’s a lot of makeup work that greets me when I return,” Mikaila says. “This year, procrastination was one of the main things that I had to learn not to do.”
But the sacrifices are worth it. Mikaila relishes being the owner of a business, using her profits for a worthy cause and teaching people about bees. She’s also a mentor to other budding female entrepreneurs. She helped her friends at school launch a company making soaps and bath products to sell at a business fair, and traveled to South Africa to speak to girls at a women’s entrepreneur conference about how to start and run their own businesses.
“I think what people recognize most about Mikaila is that she’s not just in this to create revenue, but she’s also in it to solve a bigger problem,” says her mother.
So what’s next for this preteen powerhouse? When you’re a CEO before becoming a teenager, when the former president knows you by name, when you’re in demand as a speaker at high-profile events alongside leading businesswomen and philanthropists, where do you set your sights?
Not surprisingly, Mikaila has plans, plenty of them. She wants to be a “serial entrepreneur” and launch other businesses. She’d like to run her own nonprofit. A straight-A student, she hopes to go to college and become a coder — because, she says, coders make some of the biggest differences in our world. She wants to travel and continue her work as a bee evangelist. As for her flagship company, Mikaila envisions an extensive line of Me & the Bees products rivaling that of internationally famous Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty.
Beyond making her great-granny happy, Mikaila says she’s most proud of persevering through the many challenges of launching a small business and growing it to become successful.
“I’m proud that I didn’t stop working hard, even after the name change,” she says. “If I didn’t keep working, if I didn’t keep trying, the business definitely wouldn’t be where it is today.”
For more on Mikaila, check out her Tumblr.
Photos by Ian Kasnoff.