How a young entrepreneur took her brand national
Meet Mikaila, Austin’s Teenage Lemonade CEO
Texas CEO Magazine | August 18, 2020
Now celebrating more than 10 years in “buzzness” (as Mikaila puts it), Me & the Bees Lemonade is available across the United States.
Kids selling lemonade has long been a trope in American culture: big smiles, plastic cups, hand-lettered signage. But Mikaila Ulmer has been bringing a full-fledged entrepreneurial spirit to the beverage business since Kindergarten. Now 15 years old, Mikaila took a special lemonade recipe from a Kindergarten fair idea to a national lemonade brand, now available in 40 states.
Mikaila’s story begins with bee stings and a bit of serendipity. At four and half, Mikaila entered the Acton Children’s Business Fair—but she didn’t have a product to sell yet. Like so many great product ideas, hers was born by synthesizing personal experiences into something new.
First light bulb: Mikaila was stung by two bees in the same week. Understandably now afraid of flying insects, she was encouraged by her parents to learn more about bees before writing them off. It worked: Mikaila became fascinated by bees’ vital role as pollinators, and concerned by their dwindling numbers. Whatever her entrepreneurial product was, she wanted it to benefit bees.
Second light bulb: Around the same time, Mikaila’s great-grandmother sent her a tattered cookbook that dated back to the 1940s. Inside, Mikaila stumbled upon the recipe for Great Granny Helen’s beloved flaxseed lemonade. What if she used honey from bees instead of sugar in the recipe?
It was the beginning of what would become Me & the Bees Lemonade.
Mikaila’s subsequent journey includes a stop on Shark Tank (where she received an investment from Daymond John) and an invitation to the Obama White House. And on top of it all, she’s now a published author. Her new book, Bee Fearless: Dream Like a Kid — part memoir and part business advice — is available now.
This teenage Texas CEO took time to tell us more about her business, balancing school and entrepreneurship, and some of the best business advice she’s received so far.
What motivated you to turn lemonade into a business at such a young age?
It was all about helping the bees and finding a way to save them year-round. I realized that the more lemonade I sold, the more bees I could help. So, when a local pizza shop offered to carry the product if we could find a way to bottle it, I was so excited about the opportunity. When I was presented with the challenge of going from a simple lemonade stand to bottling my lemonade for local Austin stores for greater distribution, I realized that there would be a lot more sales of it to help with my mission of donating to charities that help the bees.
We are now celebrating more than 10 years in “buzzness,” and I have been donating a percentage of the profits to local and international organizations fighting hard to save the bees since the beginning. And, I also founded the Healthy Hive Foundation to make an even greater impact.
What makes Me & the Bees lemonade special in the beverage market?
It’s a social company. I truly believe being a purpose-based brand in the beverage market is a key differentiator; “Buy a bottle, save a bee” is our motto because a portion of our sales goes to help save the bees. Consumers can enjoy a great-tasting, better-for-you, ready-to-drink beverage and feel great about supporting our mission.
Also, our lemonade flavors are “fun and functional,” meaning it contains ingredients that support health and wellbeing. In addition to honey, we add flaxseed, which is certainly unique for lemonade. Flaxseed is a source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Also, Me & the Bees has reduced the grams of sugar, as well as overall calories, in all five of our flavors.
And, my business is a family-owned minority business, based in Austin, Texas. Even though it started as my lemonade stand, it now offers our lemonades at 1,500 points of distribution in 40 states!
At your age, you’re running a business and going to school. How do you manage to do that?
Honestly, striking a balance is always a challenge. For example, I often have to decline amazing opportunities to meet or share my story with people around the world. I really try to focus on school first and then Me & the Bees. It’s great having an amazing team so we can get everything done.
What’s your favorite flavor of Me & the Bees lemonade?
Well, I love them all, but I especially love Prickly Pear Lemonade, as it’s a Texas favorite, and it tastes amazing as a popsicle. Our Classic Lemonade is the homage to my Great Granny Helen’s recipe that inspired me to start my lemonade stand when I was four. It strikes just the right sweet and tart balance. Other people’s favorite is our Ginger Lemonade, with the kick from organic ginger. We also do a version of an Arnold Palmer and Mint Lemonade, so enough variation to please everyone.
Where can people try these flavors if they haven’t yet?
It’s sold at H-E-B, Whole Foods Market, World Market across the state, and at Kroger in Houston. We also distribute it to several restaurants and convenience stores. We have a store locator you can use. And if it’s not available at your local store, you can always order it on our website.
Say another kid is thinking about trying out entrepreneurship. What would you tell them to be aware of?
Follow your purpose with passion and go for it. Always know your numbers and give, save, spend—in that order. And, learn from failures to make your next attempt better. Finally, one expression I like to use as an alternative to “make lemonade out of lemons” is “don’t be discouraged by life’s little stings, get back up and spread your wings.”
What about good advice you’ve gotten in the past from other people. Has anything in particular stuck with you?
I’ve been so fortunate to get a lot of great advice over the years!
- “No matter how old you are, you always have something to learn. And no matter how old you are, you always have something to teach.”
- “When you have a big voice, make sure that you give others a voice behind you. You’re not only growing yourself but helping others grow and giving your expertise to others.”
- “Be the person in the room who always has a solution, not a problem. It sets you apart and you’ll be known as the person with solutions.”
- “Being nervous and getting butterflies before something big just means you care about it. Take deep breaths.”
What’s ahead for you and Me & the Bees?
On the business side, finding additional distribution points for our lemonades as we scale and grow, as I want to be in all 50 states and America’s favorite lemonade! With the experience under our belts and top-notch operational processes in place, we are currently looking for more investors to help get us there faster. And I want to always keep learning and share my learnings so others can also be successful.
And for me personally, the thing I’m most excited about right now is the publication of my first book, Bee Fearless: Dream Like A Kid, which just debuted. Part memoir, part business book, I hope it inspires the next generation of changemakers.
Last question. What’s the biggest challenge you foresee down the road for yourself as a teenage business leader?
We’re going to have to embrace that challenge of getting into all 50 states within a year. That means we will have to work hard to secure additional distribution points for our lemonades as we scale and grow. And we’re also looking for more investors to help get us there faster.
As I enter my junior year of high school, there’s a lot more schoolwork than ever before, and soon I will have to think about college. Again, therein lies the challenge of keeping everything in balance.
And lastly, the biggest challenge of all is to figure out how to really make significant progress to help save and protect the bees and other pollinators. With all the persistent pesticides used in conventional farming, it’s hard to prompt change in policies to prohibit pesticides like neonicotinoids.
So, there are lots of challenges near and short term, but the way I approach those adversities will be by finding a way to face them head on and turn them into motivation to succeed.