The purpose of Client Tell is to spotlight the incredible work of our clients, and to help businesses learn from and connect with each other. This month, we sat down with Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, Founder of Bee Downtown, a startup that builds custom beehives in urban environments. Read the story of this Durham-based nonprofit and why it’s creating so much buzz around RDU and beyond.

A Different Startup Story

Leigh-Kathryn Bonner isn’t your average 24-year-old. The fourth-generation beekeeper started her company in 2013, when she was a junior at NC State. She was recently named as one of Southern Living Magazine’s Southerner of the Year.

While interning at the American Tobaccos Campus, she asked the owner if she could install a rooftop beehive, since honeybees tend to have reproductive success in urban environments. When other businesses began asking her to start hives on their campuses, she took a leap and turned her passion project into a full-time job. For the last few months they have been part of the Engage accelerator in Atlanta. 

Bee Downtown installs and maintains hives on properties for businesses, rebuilding the honeybee population while providing a full-service sustainability and employee engagement program to corporations. “Every day I wake up and think, today is for the bees,” said Leigh-Kathryn. “And at the end of the day, I know I’ll wake up and do it all again, because I’m passionate about this and want to make a lasting change in the world.”

A Hive Approach

What began with seven hives and three corporations has quickly grown to 100 hives with 40 companies around the Triangle, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Burt’s Bees, IBM and United Way. The sponsored hives allow businesses to play a direct role in stabilizing honeybee populations.

We install and maintain the hives throughout the year, but we train the employees to do the fun stuff,” explained Leigh-Kathryn. “At first companies viewed the hives as a liability and were hesitant to get on board, but a little education and hands-on training goes a long way.”

Bee Downtown is doing more than saving the honeybee population; it’s building community. Corporations looking to make an environmental impact can do so while bringing a one-of-a-kind opportunity for employees (and plenty of honey to go around) right to their campuses.

bee downtown

Humble Leadership

Turning down a higher-paying job offer to go full-time with Bee Downtown after graduation, Leigh-Kathryn wants to encourage others who are thinking about launching a startup. “If you have a vision, and it’s something you love wholeheartedly, go for it,” she said. “I knew if I didn’t give my idea a try, I would spend the rest of my life wondering, what if?”

Although she’s now the Queen Bee, Leigh-Kathryn has learned that pride doesn’t fit in with her company model. “I have no background in business, and I’ve really never even had or been a boss before,” she reflected. It’s been a steep learning curve, but I face the challenges and try to learn every day to make this the best company it can be.”

The Power of Community

Bee Downtown’s success has only been possible with the support of like-minded entrepreneurs. “So many people around the Triangle have gone above and beyond to help us,” said Leigh-Kathryn. “I’m constantly looking to others for resources and wisdom to make this business thrive.”

Leigh-Kathryn partners with the attorneys at Fourscore Business Law because the two startup founders share an entrepreneurial mindset. “They take so much joy in teaching,” said Leigh-Kathryn. “When I first started out I knew nothing about legal documents, but the attorneys at Fourscore take the time to patiently provide answers and encouragement. That’s what startups need in a lawyer – someone who gets it, and is ready to help you lean in to your vision.”

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