Girl Scout alum Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, the 29-year-old founder of Bee Downtown, grew up near her family’s cattle farm and is a fourth-generation beekeeper. She was a junior at North Carolina State when she started her business.
But she had prepared for a life of entrepreneurship as a Girl Scout Brownie and Junior.
“It was a great first team experience,” she says of selling Girl Scout Cookies with her troop. “You’re all working toward a common goal, and it was my first opportunity to learn how to sell.”
“What I loved about selling Girl Scout Cookies was that I learned how to put myself out there to people I didn’t know, and to introduce myself and tell them about the product. If you’re not a Girl Scout, you’re not put in a position to sell at that young age.”
Leigh-Kathryn’s seven-year-old business combines the love of bees she took from her time at the family farm and the love of selling she learned from the Girl Scout Cookie Program. Bee Downtown installs and maintains beehives on corporate campuses and centers them in employee engagement and leadership development programs.
She was inspired by some early wins in the Raleigh-Durham area, where they launched.
“Burt’s Bees didn’t actually have bees at their headquarters and we developed a program called Burt’s Got Bees,” she explains. “Sustainability was new as a core value for corporations, especially in the south, and we were on the front end of it.”
“It was magical to people,” she says of the moment the hive arrived at the Burt’s Bees headquarters. “Employees would come down and ask if we had an extra suit so they could see the bees.”
Leigh-Kathryn realized her company’s sweet spot is in cultivating workplace culture through employee engagement with sustainable agricultural experiences.
“We invite employees to play, enjoy, and discover, but we have full-time beekeepers on staff to take care of the hive,” she says. “We ship out honey in boxes to teams and we do virtual live tastings and hive tours in person, where people put on suits and visit the beehives.”
Bee Downtown now has 13 employees—most of them women—and operates 500 hives with 100 different corporate partners along the east coast. Each hive can house 65,000 bees and altogether they produce 12,000–15,000 pounds of honey a year.
The honey that isn’t shared with employees as part of employee engagement opportunities is donated to food banks or used in collaboration with partners such as breweries.
Today, Leigh-Kathryn finds herself taking inspiration from the bees themselves.
“The beehive is a feminine structure and one of the most efficient and social structures on the planet. They have inherent trust, they build the most efficient and effective teams, and they have the ability to come to a consensus and move forward quickly. Every bee has a job and older bees can revert back to jobs they had previously … everything they do is for the good of the beehive,” she says. “The girls do all the work and their entire life’s work is creating an abundance of resources for the next generation.”
Her job is not without its challenges.
“My mom was hesitant for me to do this because [agriculture] is the one industry where you can do everything right and still lose everything in a moment to a hurricane or a drought,” she explains, adding that her mother knew that from her experience with the family farm. “There are lots of long nights and unexpected work hours. Sometimes, for example, we have to go out and get bees that landed in a tree unexpectedly.”
In addition, Leigh-Kathryn had to pivot her business model when COVID-19 shut down all her corporate partners’ offices in March of 2019.