With a fresh perspective on the world, teenage CEO Mikaila Ulmer is leading the way in social entrepreneurship.
By Darby Kendall, Photos by Rudy Arocha. Styled by Parke Ballantine with inspiration from Nordstrom, Pavement and Wood & Rose, Makeup by Emily Kay Lai. Shot on location at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
When 4-year-old Mikaila Ulmer found herself wanting her cousin’s toy, her parents offered to buy her the same one under the condition that she help pay for it. When not immediately given what she wanted, Ulmer didn’t throw the tantrum many at that age would have. Instead, she decided to make and sell a product to come up with the money. Now 16 years old, Ulmer has traded in her childhood toys for homework and a learner’s permit. But the enterprise she started 12 years ago has blossomed into a lemonade business sold in over 1,500 stores nationwide.
In many ways, Ulmer is your average teenager. She’s currently finishing her junior year of high school. She enjoys rock climbing with her friends and rollerblading around South Austin. Her mom, D’Andra, can’t wait for her to get her driver’s license so she can take her little brother to school. On the other hand, Mikaila has a resume that would outshine many adults’.
As the founder and CEO of Me & the Bees Lemonade, Mikaila has over a decade of experience running her own company. She’s traveled the country giving talks while educating kids and parents alike on small business and environmental advocacy; at 11 years old, Mikaila pitched her lemonade on Shark Tank and secured a $60,000 investment from Daymond John; in 2016, she introduced Barack Obama at The United State of Women Summit.
Combining an insatiable joy for life with a remarkable drive to execute her ideas, Mikaila is unlike any other.
Of course, any business founded by such an individual has an inspirational and impactful twist. Initially created as a lemonade stand to help Mikaila fund her toy hunt, Me & the Bees Lemonade has done much more than provide her with a lifelong education in entrepreneurship. The brand, which offers multiple flavors of bottled freshly squeezed lemonade made with Texas wildflower honey and flaxseed, was designed by Ulmer with built-in beneficence.
“After I decided I was going to do a lemonade stand, I fortunately got stung by two bees in one week,” she says. “I became terrified of bees. My parents said, ‘Why don’t you do some research?’ I learned that bees are responsible for the food that I eat, and that bees are dying at an alarming rate. So I decided, ‘Okay, I’m already going to do a lemonade stand. What if I do one that helps the bees?’”
Once the stand was up and running, Mikaila began to regularly donate a portion of her sales to the Texas Beekeepers Association. Today, her environmental activism goes well beyond her monetary donations to a variety of local and international orgs that benefit bees. Branching off of Me & the Bees’ success, she founded the Healthy Hive Foundation, a nonprofit that works to save the bees through education, research and protection.
Making the World a Better Place
“Although we donate a portion of the proceeds to the community, I wanted to start something that was all about saving the bees. Getting unbiased studies on what’s really affecting the bees is the research part. The education is the teaching workshops and starting the apiary so kids, and people who want to learn more about the bees, can. The protection part is doing partnerships, turning regular land into bee-friendly land, things like that; so actually going out and protecting the bees,” Mikaila explains.
“Recently, we also added teaching about social entrepreneurship. Because I realized that if more companies also did good in the world or solved a problem, then we’d be in a much better place. Especially in my generation as we are looking to see how does this brand affect the world environmentally or in terms of human rights? I think if I also encourage people who are starting businesses to look at those things, we’d be in a much better place.”
Striving to leave the world a better place than she found it is ingrained in Mikaila’s business ethics. Advocacy is an essential part of her day-to-day life. “My favorite part of advocacy is doing the work. For example, making effective bee homes and teaching people how to do that. Or going and making batches of seed bombs, or getting my hands in the mud and making compost.”
Her impressive feats of founding a nonprofit and environmentally beneficial business were made possible by the immensely supportive family backing her up. Every member of the Ulmer family has a role supporting Mikaila in her ventures. D’Andra wears many hats within the business, but her background lies in marketing and public relations. Mikaila’s father, Theo, who has worked at Dell for over 20 years, oversees the finance and operations. Older brother, Khalil, who lives in San Francisco, works on IT for the business. And her younger brother, Jacob, uses his interest in photography to help take pictures for Me & the Bees.
“My family has always supported me by allowing me to make a decision and learn, while not shutting down the idea,” Mikaila says. “My mom taught me most of what I know about marketing, from the experience from her own business. And my dad taught me a lot about finance and operations, bringing it from his current job. It’s a huge time commitment [for them]. Even though a lot of the stuff that we do is fun, it’s also making sure that I’m ready to speak at an event. It’s spending time away from their work to take me to be able to accept this opportunity. Then when I’m in school, and it’s finals week, or when I want to do something like a camp of friends, it’s keeping on top of Me & the Bees while I’m going and being a teenager.”
Belief in Mikaila’s Dreams
Speaking with D’Andra, it becomes immediately clear that she wholeheartedly believes in her daughter and has embraced Mikaila’s dreams from day one. “Being Mikaila’s mom, well it keeps me on my toes. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I think she makes me an even better person,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m tired or I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel or I’m afraid, I channel her fearlessness. I think she definitely makes me a better mom and a better person. I’m very proud of her, not because she’s a founder and CEO, but because of the person she is. She’s very kind. And I’m not saying that because I’m her mom. She works with kids, she goes to stores and buys gifts for her friends and she’s always considerate of others.”
Family ties go deep in Mikaila’s business, beyond the immediate support of her parents. The original inspiration for her lemonade stand came from a cookbook handed down by her Great-granny Helen. Including a recipe for flaxseed lemonade. “It was really old and tattered, and it had ingredients like lard in it. They were old recipes, but to me, it was just weird stuff,” Mikaila says. “My parents were thumbing through the book and they found a recipe for flaxseed lemonade, so we tried making it. I didn’t know what flax was, but I liked the recipe.”
With Granny Helen’s recipe in-hand, Mikaila launched her lemonade. Now thanks to the support of her two immediate grandmothers, Me & the Bees is a bestseller around the country.
“Even both grandmas support her! The cities the grandmas are in have our top-selling stores, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Buffalo, New York,” says D’Andra. “The grandmas are at those stores, telling them about their grandbaby and talking to the church. They even go in and put coupons on the bottles.”
Support has also come in the form of mentors, backers and the city Mikaila calls home. As a burgeoning business owner, growing up in Austin provided her with the perfect location to get her start.
Austin is Buzzing
“Austin is a very entrepreneurial city, so we’re in good company,” D’Andra elaborates. “We’ve even received funding from the city. It’s the fact that we’re here. The fact that Mikaila has been speaking at SXSW since she was about 9, so we have international platforms. I know it seems so small. But even when she first started, she went to these businesses like Central Market and H-E-B and said, ‘Hey, I have a lemonade stand. Can we barter?’ And they would say yes! I think just having a city that’s engrained in entrepreneurship made it good timing for us.”
When Mikaila published her business memoir, Bee Fearless: Dream Like a Kid, in the midst of the pandemic last summer, local business BookPeople also stepped up to the plate to help her promote in this new, strictly online landscape. They hosted an event with her via Zoom and the book became a top seller at their store. Though the marketing for Bee Fearless was not as Mikaila had initially pictured it, she still gained plenty from the experience of writing a book.
“They were right when they said it’s like a marathon, not a sprint, because the process took two years,” says Mikaila. “A lot of that work was concentrated until last year, especially the summer. And it was, ‘Okay, the books done, time for final edits. Now you record the audiobook. Now you do interviews, and virtual book signings, and catch up with mentors or people who have interacted with you in the past to get them to read it.’
“It was a lot.”
But the hard work paid off immensely as reviews for the book rolled in. “I guess I was a little bit surprised. It was one of those ‘oh, little old me’ things. I would think, ‘Okay, I can see middle schoolers really liking this book.’
“But when I saw that adults genuinely liked it, and little kids really liked hearing it as a bedtime story, that kind of blew my mind.”
Mikaila may have been surprised by the book’s widespread success. However, D’Andra has always believed that her daughter is capable of whatever she sets her mind to. “Some of my favorite parts of seeing Mikaila grow with the business are her insatiable dreams and her knowledge,” D’Andra states. “She is really smart, and not just on a surface level, but many layers deep, and that’s so important. You can tell when you ask her a question that’s about ops or about finance. It’s not just a surface answer. Her answer shows that she understands the functionality of the business. So it’s her expertise, it’s her insatiable dreams and all at the same time, it’s her humbleness.”
From an early age Mikaila has had an innate drive to learn and create.
From plugging bananas into circuit boards as an on-the-go piano, to teaching herself American Sign Language with extra downtime during the lockdown. Brainstorming up an ice cream-centric skin care brand with her friend, naming formulas after sundae toppings. Her drive is inspiring. But it does beg the question. How does a 16-year-old juggle working as a CEO alongside the looming senior year at a private school, while also maintaining the hobbies and social life that just come along with being a teenager?
“It’s just working hard. Working hard, especially when it was in person, before the pandemic, and I was traveling in person to do meetings and presentations, I would have to catch up. I would have to go prepare for my speaking engagement or my presentation. Fly there, give the speaking engagement and come back. And either on the plane or when I got back, make up however many days I missed in every single one of my classes at my college preparatory school. Which is really rigorous. It required me to stay on top of a lot of things and also get used to being behind. Like realizing that I can’t be good at everything,” Mikaila explains.
“It’s also having a team that can pick up different tasks when I’m in school. So it started as just my family. Now we have a PR team and sales team and a finance team and distribution and ops, who can make sure that the company is running smoothly when I’m swamped with school. Like I am at the moment.”
Years of Experience
As Mikaila’s gotten older and her schoolwork has increased, her experience with running a company has grown right alongside it. “I think she has more input now. She has 16 years of experience, so sometimes she is the expert,” says D’Andra.
Mikaila elaborates that as she’s gotten older, her role in the company has gotten larger. But now that she’s preparing for her future post-high school, “I’m spending a little less time on business and more time on figuring out what I want to do next.
“I’m already doing stuff with Me & the Bees, so I have to make even more time to do my hobbies. It’s probably going to take me a little longer to do enough things where I can figure out what I want to do in life. But based on what classes I enjoyed in high school and middle school, I’m interested in biology and tech design. I’m taking robotics and engineering next year, and also bio II; I’m taking a lot of sciences. I like the lab, creative, testing and investigating part of it. Still don’t know what subject that would fit. But I’ve seen it the most in entrepreneurship and then also in science,” Mikaila says.
“I pretty much want to try as many different subjects as I can. And then try to figure out a way to lead entrepreneurship to that area. So find a subject or an industry that I’m really excited about and bring my entrepreneurship there.”
Looking to the future of Me & the Bees, Mikaila once stated in an interview that she hopes that her business can one day be “the Hello Kitty of lemonade.” When asked to expand on that, she explains that she admires the way Hello Kitty has such a vast portfolio of products. All while maintaining the same appealing brand of the original character. “I want to make Me & the Bees have a bunch of different products. At this point, I think it would be cool to continue with the lemonade but have many other kinds of drinks, have snacks or have skin care. We have lip balm, but other types of skin care would be cool.”
The opportunities available to Mikaila after high school are far and wide. D’Andra is open to all of her ideas, both personal and professional. Be it expanding Me & the Bees to a beauty-adjacent line or agreeing with Mikaila on a gap year before college, D’Andra is there to encourage.
“The support that she’s received, for Me & the Bees specifically, from her city in particular, from her investors, from her friends, from her strategic partners—what she’s doing, they’re not risks. They are the execution of dreams with support. There’s so many people that say, ‘Let me know how I can help.’ I think that’s what makes us fearless.”
Mikaila may not know what her future holds as she enters her final year of high school. But her determined drive and solid support system will surely lead her wherever she is meant to be.