Being a 13-year-old is hard. Being a 13-year-old CEO is even harder.
Mikaila Ulmer had no idea how she would make this week work. The eighth-grade entrepreneur had just planned a trip to an important trade show—one that would introduce her company, Me & the Bees Lemonade, to potential new buyers and customers. But then she discovered that the expo fell on the dreaded “Devil’s Week” at her Austin, TX, middle school. “Once a trimester, every teacher of every class will give a test and a big project with homework every day,” says Mikaila. “When you miss one day, you have to spend a lot of time catching up or your grades will drop.” In order to go to the trade show, Mikaila had to miss four of these crucial school days. “Going to the expo was really important for my company,” she says, “but my grades were really important in determining which high school I was going to get into.” Handling both her business and schoolwork would take serious planning—another day in the life of a 13-year-old CEO.
Mikaila’s secret weapon
RRS (Research, Rehearse, Sleep) “The gutsiest thing I’ve done as the CEO of my company is introduce President Barack Obama at the United State of Women Summit. I was so nervous. But I focused: I read about him, rehearsed my speech, even practiced how I would walk on- and offstage. Backstage he came over to me, gave me a fist-bump, and said, ‘You got this. You’re going to blow it away.’ That really calmed my nerves too. I got onstage, and I was like, ‘Oh my god—this is crazy!’ I walked offstage and I cried. I’m a firm believer that you should take opportunities—even if you’re afraid! To deal with the nerves, I overprepare. It helps me feel confident in the moment. And also, sleep. Sleep cures nerves.”
Mikaila founded Me & the Bees Lemonade when she was just four years old, after her parents suggested she enter her lemonade stand into a children’s business competition. Around that time, two bee stings in a row prompted her to learn about the animals that had hurt her. She discovered that climate change has put bees at serious risk of extinction and wanted to do something about it, donating proceeds from her lemonade sales to organizations that help save the honeybees. Her company has stayed true to that mission, even in the nine years that Me & the Bees Lemonade has gone from a tiny stand to a major business selling in over 500 natural grocers nationwide. And Mikaila is still in charge, selecting lemonade flavors, pitching investors (she won an $810,000 investment from a group of NFL players), and acting as the public face of the company, from business conferences to the White House. She does it all while getting good grades, playing volleyball, raising pet chickens, and making time for her friends. “If I miss a sleepover or something, we’ll make it up the next week,” she says.
But running a company on top of school has turned Me & the Bees into a family business. As CEO, Mikaila delegates the company’s day-to-day activities to her mom (who oversees marketing) and her dad (who handles finance). “My parents say they work for me, but I say that they’re my mentors,” she says, adding, “but they do kind of work for me.” Even her brother pitches in. “When you’re working with family, no one’s afraid to tell you, ‘That idea won’t work,’” she says. “But we try as hard as we can to keep any business talk in the office and not bring it home.”
What it's really like to be a 13-year-old CEO
Go to school
Knock out my homework
Catch up with my family at dinner
Be a CEO during recess
Do my chores
Mikaila felt especially glad to work with her family the week of the trade show. Every day, she woke up before the expo began, did homework, then manned their Me & the Bees booth for a few hours before passing it off to her family. During those breaks, she would do more homework or Skype into class for group projects, then spend any remaining time talking to potential retailers or investors. “I not only finished my schoolwork,” she says, “but I was able to close an amazing deal with Gelson’s Markets that launches Me & the Bees into California.”
Her strategy for handling the chaos that week was to tackle one issue at a time. “If I think about everything together—the classes, the tests, the due dates, the work—it just swamps me,” she says. “I have to focus on one task, or I won’t get anything done.” And whenever she did get overwhelmed, she’d try to remind herself why the stress was ultimately worth it. “I would think about the bigger mission that I have. I’m doing this work for my company because I really want to save the bees, and because I know it’s good experience for my future,” she says. “That’s what keeps me motivated and energized.”
Want to know how Mikaila scored that big investment from NFL players? She walks you through how she did it here.