When Mikaila Ulmer (26C) was four, her parents gave her an ultimatum: make money or do more chores for a new toy. Her parents were willing to help her get the toy, as long as she earned it.
Mikaila Ulmer decided that she didn’t need any more chores. Instead, she started a lemonade stand based on a family recipe for flaxseed lemonade, with a sweet twist: honey.
Around the same time, Mikaila Ulmer had gotten stung by two bees in one week. With the encouragement of her parents, she got over her fear of bees by researching them. Through watching informational videos and reading picture books, Mikaila Ulmer learned how vital bees are to many ecosystems and that they’re dying around the world at an alarming rate. As a result, she decided that she wanted to help the bee population by including their honey in her lemonade, donating money earned the sales to bee-friendly foundations and educating others.
“Thinking about it now, it’s a really creative idea,” Mikaila Ulmer said. “Not only is it healthy, it’s unique, it’s a social business. But at the time as a four-year-old, it was just a product that tasted good, and it would do good and that was it.”
For years, she continued to host lemonade stands, soon becoming known around her hometown of Austin, Texas. Word of the product had spread across Austin, and when she hosted her lemonade stand outside of local restaurants or at local youth business fairs two to three times a year, she would always sell out. When Mikaila Ulmer was eight, she even started teaching workshops about bees at Whole Foods and other stores.
“It was a very local movement,” Mikaila Ulmer said. “[I] relied on the Austin community supporting me, and it wasn’t until a local business said, ‘Hey, if you can find a way to bottle your product, we will sell it in our store’ … that I realized, ‘Oh, this could be an actual business.’”
Me & the Bees started to bottle their product and the business became increasingly popular. Mikaila Ulmer and her mother hand-delivered their product to around 25 stores in the Austin area, driving around and dropping packages off out of her mother’s car. Business was booming, and the business would soon start to scale up by producing the product in a commercial kitchen and trademarking their logo.
The business’ original name was “Bee Sweet Lemonade,” which they had come up with in the early 2010s when they started bottling their product. However, Me & the Bees was faced with a lawsuit from a California farming company because they thought that Bee Sweet’s name was too similar. As a result, Bee Sweet Lemonade became Me & the Bees in 2016. Ulmer said that the Bee Sweet team decided to use the situation as an opportunity to broaden their name and allow room for their company to branch out from lemonade in the future, while still forwarding their mission to save the bees.
Me & the Bees Lemonade donates to a number of different groups, including the U.S. Beekeepers Association, Heifer International and the Sustainable Food Center. Additionally, the company donates to the Healthy Hive Foundation, which Mikaila Ulmer founded in 2016.
“I wanted to dictate exactly what projects we were going to do,” Mikaila Ulmer said.
The Healthy Hive does a lot of work to save the bees. They commissioned a research survey with San Francisco State University to determine how wildfires have affected California’s wild bee populations. In addition, they have donated to Emory organizations, such as Emory Entrepreneurship & Venture Management and the University’s sustainability gardens, and are looking to launch some other projects based on campus to help the bees.
However, the growing business soon hit a roadblock. Mikaila Ulmer said that they outgrew their commercial kitchen, their personal expertise and their capital, and it was time for a change.
At the same time, the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce was hosting auditions for Shark Tank and reached out to her about auditioning for the show. Initially, Mikaila Ulmer wasn’t planning on auditioning, and her parents also rejected the idea. However, after three attempts at convincing her parents to let her audition, she tried out.
Before Mikaila Ulmer knew it, she had made it through round after round of auditions and was told that she had two months to finalize her pitch before being flown to Los Angeles to present to the Sharks.
“And that was another moment of my whole local community helping me,” Mikaila Ulmer said. “We needed donations to get to LA. We needed my math teacher to help tutor me after class, like extra time to make sure I understood percentages and things like that.”
Mikaila Ulmer said that other local entrepreneurs and investors even offered to listen to her pitch and to give her advice on it. Their community effort was successful: she went on the show and secured an investment from Daymond John.
Since then, the business has grown exponentially.
“After Shark Tank and after we made the deal, it was our first national exposure,” Mikaila Ulmer said. “We started getting a lot of national interest. It was the same interest as we had locally, just at a much, much larger scale.”
Mikaila Ulmer said that John’s support has been vital —not just because of his monetary investment in the company, but also because of his knowledge and support. She said that John helped her navigate all of the new exposure and deals that Me & the Bees began to pursue after going on the show. She said that Good Morning America, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, PBS Kids, Time Magazine and The White House all reached out to work with Me & the Bees and help spread their mission. Additionally, she taught students at other schools about bees while she herself was still a high school student. Soon, big names began to catch on and buy Me & The Bees, including Whole Foods, Wegmans, Target, Publix and even some Costco locations.
While running a multi-million dollar business, Mikaila Ulmer is also an Emory student. She has had to help run and develop the business for most of her life, even while being a full-time student in elementary, middle and high school.
She said that it hasn’t been easy, but that over time she has built up a network of people that support and mentor her. She said that this network includes her parents, the eight core people that make up the “hive” of Me & the Bees, investors for Me & the Bees, as well as other friends and Generation Z change-makers that she has gotten to know over the years.
One such friend is Ajah Bowser (26C). Bowser and Mikaila Ulmer met at Outdoor Emory’s SOAR pre-orientation program at the beginning of the school year and they have been close friends ever since.
“I met Mikaila on the drive there,” Bowser said. “I honestly don’t think I would have had as great of an experience as I did if I didn’t sit with her, which … says a lot to her character … To describe [Mikaila Ulmer] in three words, I would say welcoming, first and foremost, ambitious, for sure — she’s always coming up with new ideas and crazy strategies of how to accomplish things — … and spontaneous.”
Mikaila Ulmer said that her friends at Emory have been crucial in helping her balance her heavy school, extracurricular and business workload.
Another supportive person in Mikaila Ulmer’s life is Me & the Bee’s chief marketing officer and her mother, D’Andra Ulmer. D’Andra Ulmer said she really enjoys working at the company. Having worked in marketing with large Fortune 500 companies before working at Me & the Bees, D’Andra Ulmer applied her experience and passion for marketing to Me & the Bees.
“It’s been one of the greatest accomplishments and joys of my life,” D’Andra Ulmer said. “Me & The Bees has allowed me to do all of the work that I most love everyday with my daughter and the entire family. That’s a blessing.”
Mikaila Ulmer says that running Me & the Bees has given her a number of unique opportunities that she’s really appreciated having access to over the years. She has been able to travel to many foreign countries and connect with change-makers all over the world. Mikaila Ulmer has been to Singapore, South Africa, Budapest and Canada for conventions about everything from entrepreneurship to women in business, bees and more.
Looking to the future, Mikaila Ulmer said she has many ideas of what she wants to do after getting her undergraduate degree in international studies and economics at Emory.
“I would like to invest in other companies and other social businesses,” Mikaila Ulmer said. “As a woman, youth, Black entrepreneur, it has been really hard to get funding at times, and I would [also] love to make that process easier for other companies that I see being successful in the future.”
One thing that she does know for sure is that she wants to expand Me & The Bees, something she is already working to achieve.
Me & the Bees’ head of business development, Tom Izzo, started working with the company five years ago. Izzo wrote in an email to the Wheel that Me & the Bees has not only been commercially successful, but they have also contributed almost a quarter of a million dollars to saving the bees. Furthermore, he wrote that as the business continues to grow, one of the hardest things that they face is prioritization of the right opportunities. With so many options between foodservice, grocery retail, online sales, airports and more, they have to make sure to choose the right partners and markets for their product.
D’Andra Ulmer added that they want to expand Me & the Bees to a lifestyle brand, including putting their products on more shelves and departments in many different retail settings.
“Whether it’s toys, wellness or inspirational products, and, of course, an expansion of products within food and beverage, we envision launching more products continuing our model of donating to causes that fulfill our mission of helping save the bees,” D’Andra Ulmer said.
Currently, Me & the Bees is expanding to new stores, products and partnerships. Their lemonade can be found across around 6,000 stores in all 50 states, including in the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport. They have five flavors and are working on launching more. Furthermore, Mikaila Ulmer recently published her book, “Bee Fearless: Dream Like a Kid” in 2020, in which she shares more of her story of growing the company, as well as business tips and expertise that she learned along the way.
From skincare products to sweet drinks, Me & the Bees has it all, including an admirable dedication to helping save the bees. Mikaila Ulmer said they hope that their efforts to donate money, resources and time to helping educate the public about bees and work to save them will inspire others.
D’Andra Ulmer said that her favorite part of working at Me & the Bees is the good that they do for the world.
“We are doing all of this work while always keeping our mission of saving the bees at the forefront,” D’Andra Ulmer said. “[We are] inspiring the next generation of social entrepreneurs being created right in front of our eyes and [know that] the world will be a better place as a result.”
Jessie Satovsky (26C, she/her) is from San Francisco, California, prospective majoring in international relations and environmental science. Outside of the Wheel, Satovsky is on Emory's debate team. She loves chocolate, reading, and spending time in nature.