Interview by Elise Dorsett, Senior Brand Explorer at New Kind
Leigh-Kathryn Bonner is a fifth-generation Beekeeper and the founder of Bee Downtown, a company focused on building healthy, sustainable, honey bee communities around the world while teaching the public about the importance of agriculture and food production. They create and sell beehives and clear storefront observatory hives in cities to help rebuild healthy honey bee populations. In return, the bees attract interested visitors to businesses, and serve as a progressive marketing tool for the increasingly conscientious consumer.
In this interview with Leigh-Kathryn, find out why she loves being an entrepreneur in the Triangle and her thoughts on how we can improve our region. We also found out how she stays creative, how she overcame the challenges of starting her business, and how she plans to keep changing the world—one honey bee hive at a time.
Our vision is to make the Triangle one of the top five centers for innovation and entrepreneurship in the country. What do you think still needs to happen to accomplish our goal?
This region is exploding. It’s amazing, and a fun place to be working as a young entrepreneur. One way we could still improve is by increasing our focus on sustainability. We’re strong in innovation and forward thinking, and we have an opportunity to apply those to focus on green initiatives. The next great startup cities will have both a strong entrepreneur community and a commitment to the environment.
As we make plans to expand Bee Downtown, we’re looking for cities with an environmental focus. We hope to increase environmental accountability for all businesses. We want to work with businesses who are making it a priority to reduce their footprint and leave the world a better place than they found it.
Why did you choose to start your business in the Triangle?
It started when I was interning at the American Tobacco Campus. What I learned is when Durham brings you in as part of the community, you can’t fail. When the community sees potential in a project, they will help you succeed. If I had tried to start Bee Downtown in any other city, I think it would have been a lot harder. The Triangle as a whole is incredibly supportive of innovation and startups. And the programs at N.C. State are awesome. The mindset there is reflected in their motto: Think and Do. I’m thankful to be living in this area so we could start Bee Downtown here!
What’s your vision for your company in next 5 years?
We’re working to grow past the Triangle. So we’re in the process of identifying other cities that care for the environment, and that have the same feel as the Triangle. So we can bring bees to more businesses, and make the world a better place by improving honey bee pops in cities.
What are you reading (or what do you recommend)? Listening to? Watching?
Recently I’ve had to stop myself reading so many startup books! (My favorite for entrepreneurs is Zero to One by Peter Thiel.) I also love listening to podcasts—and I’m diving into anything having to do with creative thinking—I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the creative process over the past year.
Bee Downtown was lucky enough to do a deep dive workshop at IDEO through a fellowship. And I’ve seen how much fun the creative thinking process can be. It’s how I got into entrepreneurship in the first place! It’s about getting out of the weeds off the computer. If I get stuck I try to play around with things I haven’t done before to stay creative.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced when starting and growing Bee Downtown. Any advice to other entrepreneurs?
The biggest problems for us at the beginning were all the unforeseen things. You have to knowing how to roll with the punches. Nothing is perfect. It sounds cliche, but you have to pivot every 5 days. You have to know that your business plan is never up to date, and be okay with that. Just stay calm and collected and keep solving problems efficiently. Everything that could have gone wrong with Bee Downtown did. And it somehow worked out. And now it’s growing!
Another challenge for me was being so young in a field that’s mostly male. I come from a long line of beekeepers. I’m still learning. As an entrepreneur you have to stay open to learning and never get stuck in being the expert. Keep an open mind and keep learning about your craft. The more time you spend with your craft, the better you’ll get.