Catching the Buzz: A Young C.E.O. on Her Lemonade Business, Which Was Inspired by Bees
A little more than halfway through “Bee Fearless,” the 10-year-old C.E.O. Mikaila Ulmer has her first encounter with a fancy advertising agency. Its experts love the mission of her lemonade business and wonder if they can help. She takes the meeting, and a designer lets her in on a secret: “It’s not the product you sell but the story you tell.” And so we get this rarest of book breeds: the middle grade start-up memoir, by a teenager.
Any C.E.O. book ought to do two things. First, it should be a rip-roaring tale of how the author did it, warts and all.
The origin story of Ulmer’s company begins with bee stings, after which her parents encourage her to learn about the insects rather than fear them. The bees are in danger, it turns out, as is a large amount of our food supply if conditions worsen and they no longer pollinate en masse.
So the 4-year-old sets up a lemonade stand outside her house in Austin, Texas. She sweetens her lemonade with honey, since bees make it and it’s healthy. She serves it with a side of education on all things apian. The first batch of lemonade is awful, but a series of sticky experiments yields something better — unique even, after she gets the idea, from her great-grandmother’s recipe, to add flaxseed. Best of all, it’s a product with a purpose, since she donates money to bee-related organizations.
People around Austin notice. The owner of a pizza place offers to sell the beverage if she bottles it. Then the head of the local Black Chamber of Commerce urges her to audition for the TV series “Shark Tank.”
You can guess what happens next, if you don’t already know. Ulmer gets on the show, goes to Hollywood and one of the sharks bites. She leaves town with a $60,000 investment, and by the end of the book Me & the Bees Lemonade is in more than 1,500 stores.
So we have our good yarn. The second task is harder — for anyone, let alone a teenager selling her story to other kids: How do you leave people believing that they too could pull something like this off?
As with any child prodigy, readers will wonder about the stage parents. Ulmer doesn’t sugarcoat. Both her parents have business degrees. Her father worked at Dell; her mother owned a marketing firm. Eventually her mom joins Me & the Bees full time. A group of current and former N.F.L. players invests $810,000 in the company, and increased scale enables it to lower the shelf price to $2.99 per 12-ounce bottle. But we don’t learn how much money Ulmer is taking out for herself or her college fund. Nor do we learn how much has gone to the bees. Private companies have no obligation to report such figures, but authors ought to give a little more up.
Like many founders’ stories, Ulmer’s book is meant partly as self-help. Here she delivers. Bless her for stressing the importance of thank-you notes. She also writes often and well about connecting with strangers over a brief transaction. Selling remains one of the most underappreciated and under-taught life skills; many grown-ups never learn the art of the pitch.
Remembering names is crucial, too. When Ulmer goes to the White House for the Kids’ State Dinner, Michelle Obama sees her and says, “Oh, Mikaila! I know you! Come here,” before acknowledging her work. “I noted it,” Ulmer writes. “Make people feel special and comfortable.”
Near the book’s end, Ulmer describes telling a group of girls in South Africa to “imagine what it would feel like” to buy things they want without having to ask others for help. Parents who recall their own first childhood purchase probably remember the tingle they felt in that moment — and want it for their own kids, too.