Mikaila Ulmer is sitting in her Spanish class at St. Stephen's Episcopal School, where her teacher is leading them through a set of verbs that convey some universal feelings: “To fall in love with,” “to forget,” “to be scared by.”
With embroidered flowers on her boots and her hair pulled into two buns, Mikaila is like many Austin teenagers. She’s been studying “The Things They Carried” in her English class and recently learned how to rock climb through her school’s desert, canyon and wilderness program.
Mikaila started learning Spanish when she was 4, which is the same year she started making lemonade.
And lemonade changed Mikaila’s life.
Mikaila is the 15-year-old CEO of Me and the Bees, a lemonade company that has its roots in the lemonade stands she hosted as a little girl, but at the moment, she’s a student following a teacher’s assignment.
“Me ha olvidado mi mochila,” she tells her classmate, practicing the verb “forget,” even though her gray backpack sits at her feet. In just a few minutes, she’ll leave class early with her mom, D’Andra, for the Palmer Events Center, where she’s scheduled to give a keynote speech at Visit Austin’s annual convocation.
Mikaila and D’Andra arrive about an hour before Mikaila’s presentation, and she has a few slides to change, so she finds the audio-visual technician. Her knee bobs as she makes a few edits to the text, and then she heads to the greenroom, where she changes into an emerald-colored romper that she wore to the school dance.
Mikaila picks out the outfits she wears when public speaking but leaves other details to her mom. “I never do my makeup,” she says.
D’Andra Ulmer, who ran a marketing company when Mikaila was young, is in charge of Mikaila’s makeup — and her plane tickets and hotel reservations. She has transitioned to being a full-time employee with the company, and she describes her job as “Mikaila’s executive assistant.” Theo Ulmer, Mikaila’s dad, continues to work full time at Dell, and he helps out on the production side.
They both help Mikaila when she needs it, but they also have learned to stay out of her way.
Me and the Bees is now for sale at thousands of stores nationwide, and just in the past six months, the Ulmer family has been to Singapore, Budapest, San Francisco and South Africa, where Mikaila was invited to talk about her company and the business philosophies that have made her one of the most successful young entrepreneurs in the country.
On this October day, her stage is in her hometown, and to prepare, Mikaila stands in a power pose, with her chest out and chin high, to practice one more time.
“As we celebrate our 10-year anniversary, we look forward to the next 10 years of inspiring youth. I have everything I need in Austin, and I’ve had everything I need in this city,” she reads out loud to herself.
Even though she’s presented on national television and in convention centers much larger than this one, she always gets a few jitters before speaking.
“You don’t want to be behind in the middle, and you want to speak to both sides of the crowd,” her mom tells her. “Internalize it. Don’t get caught up in the details. They are here to see you.”
“Be yourself and have fun,” she reminds her one more time.
Mikaila fusses with the strap of her romper. “I’m getting a pantsuit,” she says.
’When are we going to get started?’
The journey to becoming a CEO began a decade ago, when Mikaila was just a spunky prekindergartner with idealistic dreams.
In front of a crowd of several hundred Austin business leaders, including Mayor Steve Adler in the front row, Mikaila takes the stage and tells the story she’s told a thousand times: When she was 4, she got stung by bees twice in one week, and her parents encouraged her to overcome her fear of bees by learning more about them.
Mikaila, beaming with confidence and the same, if more mature, smile that has graced endless bottles of lemonade, tells the crowd that she became fascinated by bees and their importance in the food chain and that when she learned they were dying — somewhat mysteriously at the time — she decided she wanted to raise money to donate to bee organizations by making lemonade sweetened with honey.
Her great-grandmother in South Carolina had a lemonade recipe that also contained flaxseed, so, using that recipe and her family’s help squeezing all those lemons, she started hosting lemonade stands, first as part of the citywide Lemonade Day, and then as a product sold in grocery stores, hotels and restaurants.
Mikaila Ulmer still isn’t old enough to sign documents for a company bearing her name, but her parents say that she’s always been in the driver’s seat.
Theo Ulmer tells the story of a day when Mikaila was 8. For four years, she’d been setting up lemonade stands to raise money for bee organizations and giving talks at places like the Natural Gardener. A customer had told her that he would sell her product if she could find a way to bottle it, so taking the company to the next level was something Mikaila had been talking about for a while.
“We were headed home from school one day, driving by a Thom’s Market, and she said, ’When are we going to get it started?’” Theo Ulmer recalls.
So they stopped at the Thom’s, where a manager gave Mikaila her first lesson about the food business as they went, bottle by bottle, through the drink section, talking about packaging, logos, flavors and prices.
They eventually met with Chameleon Cold Brew, a local beverage company that opened its doors to the network the Ulmers needed to tackle each one of those issues: a design firm to create a logo, a co-packer to make the lemonade, a distributor to get it in stores. They also received a producer loan from Whole Foods Market.
“I’m probably not smart enough to do what she’s doing, but I was smart enough not to flinch when she said she wanted to do it,” Theo Ulmer says.
Swimming with sharks
Mikaila Ulmer has always been more serious about the business than anyone expected. Both she and her brother got bank accounts when they were 6.
“This whole thing started because we wanted to teach her about money and the economy, business, the environment,” Theo Ulmer says, but the primary lesson was always much deeper: How can we empower these kids to make their own decisions that support a purpose-driven life?
Not long after Mikaila Ulmer started selling her lemonade in bottles, she told her parents that she wanted to apply to be on “Shark Tank,” the business investment reality show.
Her parents were initially hesitant to let her apply, but they ultimately had to stick to what they’d been doing all along: Let Mikaila decide.
They put together an application video, and within months they were in New York to tape a segment for the show.
Theo Ulmer appeared with her on the segment, but he let Mikaila, wearing a pale yellow dress with a blue headband, do the talking. After so many years giving interviews and working with adults, she finds ease in social situations that would unnerve adults, so he wasn’t worried about how well she’d do on a national television show.
“When people see how genuine and authentic she is in her passion about bees and building a business, they want to support her,” Theo Ulmer says. Investor Daymond John made a deal for a $60,000 investment for 25% of the company, and he remains a supporter.
“She was and is the face of the brand,” John says. “She's the sweetest thing in the world, but I knew Mikaila was smart from the start. The continuous growth of her company has been so impressive and has become an inspiration to other budding entrepreneurs out there.”
The “Shark Tank” appearance was when business really started to boom, Mikaila Ulmer says. They went from a few dozen local stores to national distribution through Whole Foods.
This year, Me and the Bees has expanded to more than 1,500 stores, including World Market, Natural Grocers, Wegmans, Fresh Market, Kroger and 350 H-E-Bs, and the product will be in 3,700 stores in the first quarter of next year. The company declined to release sales figures.
The company has added four flavors in addition to the original mint — ginger, iced tea, prickly pear and classic — and they also reformulated the drink, which retails for about $2.50, to be lower in sugar. Mikaila added a line of beeswax lip balms, too, with the idea that they’ll be the first in a line of body care products.
Ten percent of profits go to bee rescue and the Healthy Hive Foundation, a nonprofit branch of the company that Mikaila recently started to promote research, education and protection of bees.
Through Healthy Hive, Mikaila has been working with San Francisco State University on a research project to better understand the impact of recent wildfires on honeybees, and she’s partnered with Microsoft to use technology to monitor bees’ health and movement, data she can use when she works with STEM students.
Earlier this year, she also advocated for Texas’ so-called lemonade bill, House Bill 234, which allowed young people to host beverage stands without getting a permit, and next year, Penguin Random House will publish her memoir, “Bee Fearless: Dream Like a Kid.”
Me and the Bees
Mikaila’s biggest hurdle as an entrepreneur, however, wasn’t getting the product into stores or persuading people to buy it. In 2015, a competitor sued the company to stop using the original name, “BeeSweet.”
She could have fought it in court or started the process of rebranding. Both were long, difficult roads, but D’Andra and Theo Ulmer left the decision up to Mikaila, who ultimately decided to fight the lawsuit.
They lost the case, so, in 2016, not long after the “Shark Tank” appearance, the company became Me and the Bees.
“It wasn’t easy to get there,” Mikaila says, but the exercise in resilience has added another layer to her lemons-to-lemonade story.
They announced the name change at the White House, where she’d been invited for the Easter Egg Roll and a conference on women entrepreneurs. After she introduced President Barack Obama, he told the crowd, “I will be back on the job market in seven months, so I hope she’s hiring.”
Her dad says nobody considers the name change a failure. “It was a lesson, and it showed that she doesn’t crumble in the face of those lessons.”
Mikaila Ulmer has incorporated the company’s rebranding into the “make the best with what you’ve got” story that she often tells groups of executives, students or future entrepreneurs.
“I thought the name was what defined the company,” she tells the crowd at the Visit Austin event, “but I found out that you can’t take away the story.”
And nobody tells the story of Me and the Bees like Mikaila. She is both calm and funny onstage. If she messes up, she’s quick to recover, and she can make a joke on the fly. She presents with ease and impeccable timing.
“Raise your hand if you like coffee,” she asks the audience, as she informs them that coffee plants can’t form berries without bee pollination. “That’s good. My mom doesn’t let me drink coffee.”
The crowd laughs, and then, after she wraps her speech by telling the audience to “dream like a kid,” she gets a standing ovation.
“How inspiring is she?” Adler says, taking the stage after Mikaila. “It makes you feel like an underachiever, no matter what you’ve accomplished.”
Keeping fun in the family business
The Ulmer family is serious about business, but they are also serious about having fun.
A few weeks after the Visit Austin event, the Ulmer family, including 12-year-old Jacob, gathered at Crux Climbing Center in South Austin for a family night out, away from the business.
With Mikaila’s schnauzer, Honey, in tow, the family took turns climbing on the indoor rock climbing walls. While Theo and Jacob hit the pingpong table, Mikaila spent some time on the bouldering wall while her mom called in a taco order from the food truck outside.
“I never want any of my kids to look back and think all we did was business,” D’Andra Ulmer says. “I want it to be a blur between business and fun.”
Every time they travel for Me and the Bees, they combine some kind of fun element that they can do together, she says. “Sometimes, resting just doesn’t do it. You have to completely step out” of your regular life.
Mikaila and her parents have hired out a number of day-to-day business tasks, from accounting and distribution to brokering and sales, but, in addition to school and her hobbies, Mikaila’s days are still filled with managing that team and working on business strategy.
Her mom handles the arrangements for Mikaila’s travel, but Mikaila has to sign off on each speaking engagement or event. When she’s traveling, she’s often trying to catch up on schoolwork for days that she’s missed for business.
Cindy Abbott, one of Mikaila’s outdoor instructors, says she didn’t know about Mikaila’s role at Me and the Bees until the middle of a recent caving trip to Alabama, where they rappelled down a 150-foot cave.
“Outside of her business world, she’s just this fun-loving kid who is goofing off and playing music and having fun with her friends,” Abbott says. “I had no idea that she was this superstar in every sense. She’s so humble.”
Named one of Time magazine’s 30 most influential teenagers in America, Mikaila is quick to point out that there are other mission-minded students at St. Stephen’s who have written books or started companies with a social good initiative.
She got her start through Lemonade Day Austin, which counts more than 1,000 young business participants in its ranks every spring, and even her brother, Jacob, has his own company, PopCones, popcorn in a cone that he sold through Austin’s Acton Children's Business Fair.
“This generation of kids are making differences through companies or their voices,” D’Andra Ulmer says. “We, as parents, just need to be able to give them a vehicle to express themselves and take advantage of those teachable moments.”
Mikaila is a few years away from graduating high school, but her parents know that whatever she decides to do with the company, she’ll do it and they’ll support her. With a salary from the company and income from speaking engagements, Mikaila says she’d like to invest in other companies in the coming decade.
“We tell her that if she decides tomorrow that she wants to do something else, she’ll find something positive, whatever form it is,” Theo Ulmer says.