Optimism correspondent Ramona Flume and Mikaila Ulmer, 13-year-old founder of the mission-driven Me & The Bees lemonade company, share a conversation about optimism + business.
Mikaila Ulmer doesn’t let life’s little stings get her down. At age four, a fateful bout of bee stings inspired this pint-sized mogul to spread her wings and create her own eco-focused company that embodies a true success story of turning lemons into lemonade.
RAMONA FLUME: Entrepreneurs face an uphill battle. But you hit a particularly painful snag before you even had your first business idea.
MIKAILA ULMER: I started my company when I was four years old, after getting stung by a bee—twice. Figuring out how to forgive, and then research and understand how important bees are to us, was hard. But I learned that if you take something sour (like a lemon) or negative (like a bee sting) and add the right ingredients, you can turn it into lemonade … or a business.
RF: You weren’t just young. Your company also grew at a rapid pace. Were there times when the success of Me & The Bees made it difficult to adjust within your daily life?
MU: There was one time I was invited to speak at the United Nations, but had to cut the trip short because I had a presentation for a school project. I wanted to do both, but had to compromise. There was another time I missed a sleepover with all my friends because I was supposed to be on a national TV show. There’s always some sort of compromise, but I really love every aspect of it. It makes it all worthwhile.
“My general rule is, there is no rule for being an entrepreneur.”
RF: Missing out on time with friends is always tough. Even though a TV spot seems exciting, I bet it’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand those sorts of responsibilities. What’s it like to describe your work schedule to your friends?
MU: They’re bummed when I’m not able to spend time with them, but also really understanding of why I have to travel. We always try to reschedule things once I’m home. It’s fun because they’ll come to me with questions about entrepreneurship, like, ‘I have a business idea I used for a school project, but I want to make it into a real thing. What would I do first?’ I’ve been able to help them.
RF: Are there any particular experiences that helped you hone your ability to juggle your work-school-social life?
MU: It’s much easier to keep things separate. If I have to explain my company in front of my friends or classmates, I’m careful to stay humble and modest so it doesn’t seem like I’m bragging. Other times, like when I have to travel during the school year, I know my teachers won’t let me slack off just because I have a company. They expect the same amount of work—and sometimes more—because they know I’m capable of running a business. So, why wouldn’t I be able to finish my homework? It’s another challenge that comes with owning your own company, but it also challenges me to do better.
RF: When you do achieve boast-worthy accomplishments, like when you introduced President Obama at the White House Summit on Women last summer, how does it feel in the moment? Are you able to soak it in, or does the impact not hit until later?
MU: It’s more of a motivating feeling, like, ‘Wow, I’ve come this far with the help of my family and everyone who has helped with my company.’ It’s a motivation that reminds me, ‘We can keep doing this—and why not keep on doing this? We’ve been given these opportunities, so why not take that impact to make even more of an impact?’ Every step, challenge, or big accomplishment motivates us to do more.
RF: Have you ever had to deal with disappointing setbacks after receiving exciting news about your business?
MU: Right after I appeared on “Shark Tank,” there was another company similar to ours. We suddenly had to deal with changing our name. We tried to fight back and figure out how to potentially keep our name, but eventually, I came to my senses. I decided to look at the company’s future instead of its past, and be optimistic about what the company could be. We started a process, and narrowed about 300 names down to 10, and then five, and eventually one, which was Me & The Bees. Initially, it was hard to let go of “Bee Sweet Lemonade,” but it was also a wake-up call—you’re able to do so much more when you listen to other people’s opinions and suggestions. It opens your eyes to new opportunities.
“The best entrepreneurs come from diversity—I always tell people to try to use the things that set them back.”
RF: As a young African-American female business owner, do you feel like your business experience has been influenced by your individual age, race, or gender?
MU: My general rule is, there is no rule for being an entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, what sex or race you are, or how much experience you have. Business ideas come from the strangest places. People think to be an entrepreneur, you have to be this, this, and this. But that’s not true. The best entrepreneurs come from diversity. That’s really what I tell anyone who tells me they have a great idea for a company, but then has doubts or asks, ‘Should I keep going?’ I always tell people to try to use the things that set them back—put those things at the top of their to-do list.
RF: In recent years, people who are underrepresented in the mainstream media or corporate success see visibility as an inspiring step toward actually seeing themselves in their dream jobs. (When I was in high school 10 years ago, I can’t remember one example of a female business owner, CEO, or a Hollywood director under 30.) In your unique position, do you think other girls could be empowered by seeing you spread your message around the world, even if their own ambitions are different?
MU: I hope so. That’s what keeps me going when I get a little tired. I think the world would be a better place if each child created a business to solve a problem. I’m about to start writing a book that teaches kids how to start and grow a business. It will also illustrate my unique experience of starting Me & The Bees.
RF: Do you have any personal mantras you use to stay calm or focused, or fight nervous jitters?
MU: Don’t be discouraged by life’s little stings. Get back up and spread your wings. Having jitters is okay—it shows you care and that you’re passionate about what you’re about to do.