N.C. State alum Leigh-Kathryn Bonner found bees, built a business

N.C. State alum Leigh-Kathryn Bonner found bees, built a business

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner is the founder of Bee Downtown, which puts custom beehives in urban environments. She started the company as a student at N.C. State.

Every college student turns to their roommates when they need advice.

What should I wear to the party? Where should we go eat tonight? Did you like that class you took last semester?

But for Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, the question was a little different: How do I keep my beehive from melting?

Bee Downtown

Photo courtesy of Leigh-Kathryn Bonner.

Bonner is the founder and owner of Bee Downtown, a Durham-based business that builds custom beehives in urban environments. She started the company during her junior year of college with a see-through beehive outside of Burt’s Bees on the American Tobacco Campus.

That’s also the hive that Bonner’s roommate helped save.

When Bonner and Burt’s Bees chose the spot to install her first hive, it was early spring. The sun was high in the sky and didn’t shine on the chosen location. But when the team actually installed the hive come fall, the sun hit the glass directly, and it started melting.

Sitting in class one day, Bonner got a call from Burt’s Bees relaying that information. She was skeptical at first.

“I’m like, ‘No, it’s not (melting). Y’all don’t … maybe you don’t understand,” she said. “They’re like, ‘No, it’s literally melting, the wax is falling out of the hive.'”

So Bonner ran out of class — like any good entrepreneur/college student would — to try to fix it.

Bonner and Burt’s Bees debated solutions that would cost thousands of dollars, like an automatic sunshade or a giant bee sculpture. But Bonner had only spent about $2,000 to put the hive in. She couldn’t justify another several thousand bucks to protect it.

“It was interesting to see it from a student’s perspective versus a Fortune 500 company perspective,” she said.

So she batted around ideas with her roommates. When Bonner jokingly suggested putting a small door on the hive that people could open, her design major roommate lit up.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you put a door on the beehive? Why not?'” Bonner said.

That was all the inspiration Bonner needed. So, after $4.25 and the installation of a pool gate hinge (so the door would close automatically, rather than relying on people to remember to shut it), Bonner’s hive was safe.

Bee Downtown

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner shows off the Burt’s Bees hive (with the pool gate door in place). Photo by Eric Waters.

Bonner graduated from N.C. State in 2015. She’s been running Bee Downtown full-time since 2013. She first came up with the idea to put beehives in urban environments while studying abroad in Barcelona during her junior year. She needed a news article written in Spanish for one of her classes, and her host mom gave her a piece from a local magazine about urban beehives.

Bonner’s wheels started turning, but they’d been greased for years. Her grandfather and uncle are both beekeepers, and she took — and loved — an introductory beekeeping class during her first year at N.C. State. So when she learned that bees kept in urban environments thrive, helping to buoy a dying population, she decided she wanted to do something.

“My parents, I remember, warned me: ‘Maybe you should wait until you graduate,'” she said. But “when I get excited about something, it’s full speed ahead. So I didn’t wait. I just floored it.”

Bee Downtown

Photo courtesy of Leigh-Kathryn Bonner.

Three years in, she owns her own company, doing work she loves. She credits N.C. State with much of her success. Here are Bonner’s five tips for college students who want to be their own bosses — or those who already are.

1. Become heavily involved in the Entrepreneurship Initiative at N.C. State (or your school’s equivalent).
“If you get into that creative environment, that entrepreneurship environment at N.C. State, and you dive into N.C. State’s model of ‘Think and Do,’ then you will be the one that gets the job over the other students or other people applying.”

2. Try to find a mentor.
“You need direction as a 21-year-old, as an 18-year-old. You don’t know it all. If you try to fake it like you do, it won’t work. Ask as many questions as you can, and take as much advice as you can from as many different types of people as you can. … Just for N.C. State, talk to an engineer, talk to a biology major, talk to a CHASS (College of Humanities and Social Sciences) student — they’re all learning different things, and they’re passionate about different things, and they can help you, too.”

3. Take a basic accounting class.
Bonner laughed as she gave this tip.

“The first checks I wrote for Bee Downtown as a for-profit, I didn’t even sign them. I didn’t even know you signed checks. My roommates looked at me like, ‘You idiot.’ You’re not going to have enough money off the bat to hire an accountant. You’re going to have to do it yourself, and you can save so much time and frustration.”

4. Study abroad.
“I’m a big proponent of studying abroad because you are uncomfortable. Your senses are being assaulted at all times, because it’s all new, all at once. You learn about yourself there, and you grow. You learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That is huge for someone at such a young age, to experience new cultures and to, for the first time, be the odd man out.”

5. Actively try to think creatively.
“What gets you the job is not your ability to answer the textbook questions. You’re competing against people who literally got out of the same classes that you did and can give those answers. Future employers are looking at who you know. What have you done with your time while you’re in college besides just go to class?

My little cousin says all the time, and I love him for it: ‘Imagine if.’ We don’t do that anymore. It’s, ‘Well, the textbook said this.’ It’s not, ‘Imagine if the textbook didn’t. Imagine if we could do anything in the world.’ I think that’s something that students should always be thinking of: Imagine if I could do this. Imagine if this problem could be solved this way instead of the way somebody’s told me.”

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Pressley Baird

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1 Comment

  • Halyma
    August 5, 2016, 6:07 am

    Go Pack!!! I gotta come check you out!


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