Setting up a front-yard lemonade stand on a hot summer day is often a kid’s first experience of real-world enterprise. Selling those cool cups for 50 cents offers can offer priceless lessons in entrepreneurship — and sometimes the dangers of big government. But few lemonade-stand operators can rival 11-year-old Mikaila Ulmer’s success in Austin, Texas.
Ulmer’s story begins with a children’s business competition when she was only 4 years old. Her parents encouraged her to enter a product into the Acton Children’s Business Fair in Austin. The event is sponsored by the Acton Academy, which is a non-traditional private school that encourages entrepreneurship, among other skills.
Like many kids, Ulmer was stung by bees. Although attempts by Opportunity Lives to contact the company were unsuccessful, she writes on her website, “I didn’t enjoy the bee stings at all. They scared me.”
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But the bee stings got Ulmer interested in honeybees and how they impact our ecosystem. While learning about bees, she learned about massive die-offs of honeybee colonies that have been ongoing since the 1990s. The die offs, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, places much of the world’s food supply at risk because honeybees pollinate about one-third of the world’s crops.
After Ulmer was stung, her great-grandmother Helen sent her family a 1940s-era cookbook that included her recipe for flaxseed lemonade. She added a twist to the recipe by sweetening it with local honey instead of sugar. Flaxseed is also known to have digestive health benefits.
From her Great Granny’s recipe and Mikalia’s love of bees, “BeeSweet Lemonade” was born in 2009. The lemonade proved to be a hit at youth entrepreneurial events, frequently selling out. At the same time, Ulmer was donating a percentage of her profits to charities fighting to save honeybees from Colony Collapse Disorder, such as Heifer International and the Texas Beekeepers Association.
As word of her product spread, Ulmer landed deals to sell her product in Austin-area natural and organic food stores and restaurants. One of those locations was the flagship store of Whole Foods Market, which began carrying the lemonade in 2014.
But her first taste of national attention came with an appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” The show features budding entrepreneurs who try and pitch potential “shark” investors on their product. Most contests walk away from the show empty-handed and many receive harsh criticisms from the investors in the process.
Ulmer defied the odds and left the show with an investment deal. She persuaded one of the “sharks,” FUBU clothing company founder and CEO Daymond John, to invest $60,000 into her company in exchange for a 25 percent stake. The money was used to expand production capacity in order to make larger batches of the lemonade.
BeeSweet continues to gain customers all over the country. But the biggest contract in the company’s history came in March, when Whole Foods awarded an undisclosed loan to let BeeSweet expand production further. The high-end grocery chain will sell Ulmer’s lemonade at 55 locations in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. If the product does well, Whole Foods will start selling it nationwide.
And the company itself is about to be rebranded. Starting this month, BeeSweet Lemonade will be known as Me and the Bees Lemonade.
Despite Ulmer’s success, she is an average 11-year-old girl. She has a 9 p.m. bedtime, for example, and only works on the company after she has finished her homework.
For more information about Me and the Bees Lemonade, check out the company’s website, where you can order lemonade or find nearby retailers. The company also has a YouTube channel featuring clips of TV appearances where Mikalia Ulmer talks about the importance of bees.