By Ellie Symes, CEO, The Bee Corp.
Whenever I’m asked how I figured out how to start and run a business, the only answer I can provide is that mentors have helped me through the process. I am not just being humble. Mentorship is key to an entrepreneur’s success.
Mentorship is serendipitous. I usually get asked, “How do I get a mentor?” but there is not a good answer to that. It is not a calculated decision; it’s intuition and a feeling from both sides. My first business mentors came from a serendipitous event at Indiana University. An amazing IU Kelley professor, David Rubinstein, had been instrumental in the establishment of the Beekeeping Club at IU. He nominated me for the Wells scholarship, which I didn’t receive, but in the interview someone from the IU Foundation heard my story.
The next fall, I was invited to an IU Foundation Board meeting where students were sharing interesting things they were doing on campus. I came to present the Beekeeping Club and how the Hutton Honors College Research Grant helped us get started. After the Q&A, IU Foundation board members Jane Martin, Milt Stewart and Harry Gonso pulled me aside. They were compelled by the problem of declining honeybee populations and the energetic student who oozed passion about solving the issue. They offered to help me pursue starting an organization devoted to solving the problem. Now, when three incredibly successful people tell you they believe in you and want to help, you listen. Together with students from the Beekeeping Club, we began our business journey. At the first meeting, Harry brought an attorney from his law firm, Ice Miller, who told us about becoming a benefit corporation. Through Milt’s idea, The Bee Corp. was the perfect pun and business name, and we were off the ground.
Soon after that, Jane set up a meeting with Tony Armstrong, president and CEO of IU Research and Technology Corp., to explore grant opportunities for the company. Tony was sold on the honeybee issue and encouraged us to apply for a Small Business Innovation Research grant. SBIR grants help small businesses explore a high-risk commercial idea. To be honest, the idea of applying for a big federal grant was intimidating, but it hits on a huge theme of mentorship: Mentors are there to push you, and without that shove, it is difficult to move outside of your comfort zone. Tony connected me with his organization, explained the SBIR process and provided a grant writer. The Bee Corp. didn’t receive the first grant, but a year later we used the skills we learned to prepare another SBIR request from the National Science Foundation. Earlier this year, we found out we were awarded that NSF grant, bringing the company $225,000 with an additional $50,000 match from Elevate Ventures.
While these are just two examples of how mentorship has helped get The Bee Corp. off the ground, we have met and worked with several mentors since. They have helped us improve our business model, hire employees, and navigate technology and every other area of the business. I have already begun to pay it forward by meeting with other young entrepreneurs, and I look forward to continuing this as I continue to gain experience myself.