Entrepreneur Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, our Tar Heel of the Month, champions the honey bee

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner’s company, Bee Downtown, isn’t even five years old, but it has earned her plaudits the world round.

From features in major glossy magazines to the local news and even the BBC in the United Kingdom, Bonner’s quest to build a company that takes on the issue of a fragile bee population has propelled her from a recent graduate of N.C. State University to one of the region’s most interesting entrepreneurs.

At 26, magazines such as Forbes and Inc. already have put her on national “30 under 30” lists, and Southern Living named her one of its “Southerners of the Year.”

“For our size, we have more media features than most start-ups out there,” Bonner told The News & Observer earlier this month while working out of the American Underground co-working space in Durham.

“And I think where we get very lucky and very fortunate is that there’s such a story there — and it’s not even our story, but a story of the bees,” she said.

The story of honey bees, over the past decade, is one that has gone from apathy to widespread concern.

Honey bees, which help pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in this country every year, are hurting. Beekeepers across the United States lost 40.7% of their colonies from April 2018 to April 2019, a higher-than-average loss rate, according to the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership.

It’s a statistic that Bonner recites almost every time you talk to her — and it’s why she started Bee Downtown, to create more sustainable habitats for bees in an increasingly urban environment.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder and CEO of Bee Downtown, listens to retired Army Col. Joe LeBoeuf during a Skype call about their collaboration on a new corporate leadership training program which utilizes biomimicry of successful bee hives, on Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2019, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth

Bonner’s company maintains hundreds of beehives on corporate campuses around the Triangle, creating a connected ecosystem of colonies that stretches 60 miles from Garner to Chapel Hill. It has expanded to office towers and campuses in Atlanta, and is now educating both young and old about the relevance of honey bees to our modern lives.

For her efforts at raising awareness about the plight of honey bees and her entrepreneurial efforts, Bonner is The News & Observer’s June Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region. She will be considered later this year for Tar Heel of the Year, the N&O’s annual honor named in December.

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An unhealthy bee population

In many ways, the story of Bee Downtown is one of timing. “I think if you had tried to do this 10 years ago, it would have never have worked,” Bonner said.

It was 2007 when David Tarpy, a professor of apiculture at N.C. State, first began to hear the wider public talk about the health of honey bees. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was devastating beehives across the country, and scientists didn’t — and still don’t — fully understand the cause.

But the issue took off in the media, and ever since, Tarpy said, there has been an attitude change toward how people think about bees.

“I thought it was going to be a blip,” he said, and interest in bees would die down. Instead, the number of paying members in North Carolina’s state beekeeper association has grown from 1,200 to 5,000.

The main difference now, Tarpy said, is that “15 years ago people would say there are bees in their attic and they wanted to know how to kill them. Now, they say, ‘How can we rescue them?’”

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Honey bees cover a frame in a hive maintained by Bee Downtown, founded by Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, during a hive check at Panther Creek Farm Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2019, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth

And while CCD has declined in the last five years, the bee population is still teetering from threats like climate change and habitat loss, the introduction of parasites and diseases, and the dangers of pesticides. In 2007, about 2.4 million beehives were being managed in the U.S., pollinating about a third of everything we eat. Today, there are about 2.9 million beehives.

We don’t have a decline of the honey bee population anymore,” Tarpy said. But “we have a tenuous or an uncertain honey bee population every year ... they are unhealthy and they are more difficult to manage.”

Bee Downtown hives have had success in keeping bees healthy. The loss rate for the company’s hives last year was only 18%, Ben Dictus, a beekeeper for Bee Downtown, told the N&O in April.

Bee Downtown’s origins

Bonner is a fourth-generation beekeeper who grew up visiting her family’s farm in Eastern North Carolina. She began taking beekeeping classes during her first year in college, learning about the precarious future of pollinators.

She immediately became hooked on the subject, eventually taking the inspirations from those classes and turning them into an operation that has more than 250 hives and partners with companies like Chick-Fil-A, Delta Airlines, SAS and IBM.

Michael Goodmon, vice president for real estate at Capitol Broadcasting Co., remembers vividly the moment Bee Downtown really started. He had known Bonner for years — as a family friend first and also as “Leigh Leigh,” the name his kids gave her as their babysitter.

“I had a lot of faith in her from the beginning,” Goodmon said, which is why he wanted her to intern at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham.

During that internship, Bonner told him about her idea of managing beehives on the roofs and campuses of businesses. Goodmon already had offered her a full-time job after graduation, but Bonner wanted to know if she could try to build Bee Downtown part of her time.

Goodmon looked at her and flatly said no — she had to choose one or the other.

“She was trying to hedge her bets a little bit,” he said in a phone interview. “From all the work we have done with our companies and other companies in the American Underground, the one thing that seemed true is that part-time doesn’t work when it comes to building a company from the ground up.”

Bonner took a day to think about it. She said she was worried the wrong answer could ruin their relationship. But when she came back about a week later and told Goodmon her answer — she wanted to give Bee Downtown a go of it — she was met with a smile.

“We will be your first customer,” Goodmon answered.

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, right, founder and CEO of Bee Downtown, and regional account manager Scottie McLeod, walk from their office in American Underground to a training for startups about on-boarding new employees in the American Tobacco district, on Thursday, Jun. 6, 2019, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth

How Bee Downtown grew

So, the “beta” beehive went up on the roof, and Goodmon introduced her to local business leaders. It helped that Burt’s Bees happened to be a tenant at the American Tobacco Campus and was one of her earliest customers.

But it wasn’t just the Goodmons’ help that got the company going.

Her parents gave her an option as well: We will help you with your living expenses if you get enough customers by the end of the year to break even, her father, Ed Bonner, remembers.

“If she didn’t she would call Michael back and ask about that job,” he said.

From that conversation, she now had a deadline. She had a few months to find 14 customers.

“She overachieved,” Ed Bonner said.

In person, Leigh-Kathryn Bonner comes off as polished and confident. It’s hard to imagine her as ever being timid — or even that she is still just 26. But finding her voice as a businesswoman was something she had to learn.

“I was terrified, absolutely terrified,” she said of first interacting with executives from places like Delta, Chick-Fil-A and SAS.

“And I think, especially for me, growing up in a very Southern household, and being a young woman, I had to learn how to find my voice for the first time in my life,” she added.

She was shy, at one point, Goodmon acknowledges. But she was always “naturally good” at these meetings. “What makes you good at sales?” he said. “Do you have passion? If so then you will be good.”

Without that passion, Goodmon reckons, none of these people would have funded the hives.

In return, Bonner points to Goodmon as one of the people who brought out her confidence.

“The first time I had an idea for Michael, I prefaced it with the phrase, ‘This might be stupid,’” she recalled.

“Afterward, he told me, ‘Don’t ever start an idea with that again. ... Don’t ever do that because now the whole time instead of listening to your idea, I thought, ‘Where is it stupid? Where is it dumb?’ and I tried to find the gaps in your idea.”

Bee Downtown expands

Even through those early years, when the company was continuing to bring on new customers throughout the Triangle, Bonner realized the company needed to evolve to survive.

Yes, the company had received massive amounts of attention, but with that came the expectation that it would be a continued success when most start-ups fail. Many of those who know Bonner best think she gets too little credit for making difficult pivots to keep the company afloat.

“From where it started to where it is now, Bee Downtown has changed so much,” she said. “The first idea was to just put the beehives on corporate campuses.

“But we were not making enough money ... to be around for even another couple years.”

On her trips to Atlanta, she realized the company could do much more. Delta, specifically, wanted to know how it could get its employees involved with the beehives they had put at their offices. A light bulb flashed.

Ben Dictus, Lead North Carolina Beekeeper for Bee Downtown, leads a hive tour with a group of employees of various companies at American Tobacco on Friday, Jun. 14, 2019, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth

Instead of just creating a sustainable urban home for bees, Bee Downtown could offer educational programs, leadership exercises, events and tours centered around the beehive. All of a sudden, Bonner said, the company was able to bring white collar workers outdoors and get them involved with an important part of the agricultural system. And companies were willing to pay more for these services.

“Companies are trying everything they can to have employees engaged at work,” Bonner said. “Employees want to feel pride in their workplace ... and that is hard to do.”

But the exercises are also an effective way to raise awareness — to make people think twice about what pesticides they use and what role pollinators play in their lives. These companies become attached to their bees and don’t want to harm them. Many have completely changed how they treat their grounds, out of concern that pesticides would hurt their hives, Bonner said.

“She raises awareness in a way that no one else could,” Goodmon said. “We could make Facebook posts about bees all day, but it wouldn’t matter until people interact with them ... How many people can offer something good for the environment but also good for employees?”

Next step for Bee Downtown

The company has seven employees, turns a profit and is approaching revenue near seven figures — but its evolution still isn’t finished.

The next step, Bonner said, is the creation of a leadership institute around biomimicry, or the study of how to integrate natural structures into daily routines. The company is developing the program with retired Colonel Joseph LeBoeuf, a scholar in the Coach K Center of Leadership and Ethics.

In Bee Downtown’s case, naturally, it would be how the inner workings of a beehive can teach about leadership and teamwork.

“You would see how a beehive communicates, about the efficiency of its structure, or how a hive can fall apart,” she said.

It could also allow Bee Downtown to grow faster, as more companies could use their services without having to invest in a hive at their offices — something only large corporations have done so far.

Bonner said people ask her all the time: Would you sell Bee Downtown? Are you going to always do this?

She understands the concern. It’s really hard to be an entrepreneur and run a business where people’s paychecks depend upon you.

But she feels the need to forge on.

“Because what’s our mission as a company?” she asked herself. “It’s to leave the world a better place than how you found it, through bees.”

“I genuinely believe that we’re succeeding in that mission, so I don’t want to stop anytime soon.”

Tar Heel of the Month: Leigh-Kathryn Bonner

Age: 26

Hometown: Raleigh

Education: Bachelor of Arts, N.C. State University, 2015

Accomplishments: Founder and CEO of Bee Downtown. Named Inc. magazine’s 30 Under 30 Rising Star; a 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 for Social Enterprise; One of Southern Living Magazine’s Southerners of the Year.

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.