The founder and CEO of wellness brand Beekeeper’s Naturals shares how she gets it done and her mission to change our medicine cabinets for good.
By Michella Ore
As a trader at Goldman Sachs, Carly Stein never imagined that if she were to one day be named to the coveted Forbes 30 Under 30 list, it would involve bees. But beekeeping—as the 29-year-old founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals would learn after a series of health scares, a happiness spreadsheet, and a stint working with a beekeeping biochemist—is a big business.
Stein, a Toronto native, had chronic tonsillitis from the age of seven and was severely allergic to antibiotics. Because of the allergy, she couldn’t get her tonsils removed and found herself constantly sick and missing out on school, sometimes for up to a month at a time. Supplements and doctors never got her anywhere. “It really created this huge lack of trust in the medical system,” she says.
The final straw came during a semester abroad in Italy when Stein came down with a really bad bout of tonsillitis. “It was so severe that I was having a hard time breathing and was going to have to come home,” she says. But after months of waitressing to save up for this semester, and years of suffering at home, she was determined to find a solution. A pharmacist recommended Stein take propolis—a compound produced by bees and noted by researchers for its healing concentration of polyphenols—twice a day for five days. She did what she was told and made a full recovery, which had never happened before.
Propolis has been used for centuries by cultures across the globe, and the two other main byproducts of bees were also particularly trendy in Europe—pharmacies in France carried royal jelly brain supplements; cafés in Copenhagen would sprinkle bee pollen on smoothies—but across the Atlantic, it was all still largely missing from the mainstream.
When she got back from Italy for her final year of undergrad, Stein took up beekeeping on Vancouver Island with a man named John, a third-generation beekeeper and retired biochemist from Romania. On graduation, she was offered a job at a hedge fund as a pharmaceutical researcher; not long after that she moved to New York City for a trading position at Goldman Sachs, focusing on biotech.
The money was great but she didn’t feel fulfilled. So like a good type-A 20-something, she made a “happiness spreadsheet” to figure out what was missing. According to her notes, she was happiest when “working with the bees” and “making products and doing chemistry.” In late 2015, she ordered a bunch of lab equipment and had John ship raw propolis to her studio apartment. Loved ones saw it as a mental breakdown—Stein saw it as a mental breakthrough.
After a year of sneaking into farmers markets while still holding down her full-time finance job, Stein left Goldman Sachs at the end of 2016 to establish her own wellness business, Beekeepers Naturals, which makes everything from propolis throat spray to cough syrup to superfood honey. Stein now oversees a 30-person team behind the number-two cold and flu product on Amazon which also recently launched at Whole Foods.
During a period where we’ve become hyperaware of taking care of our health, Stein spoke to Glamour about taking the leap to follow her happiness and how being misunderstood might be your greatest advantage.
You have to build yourself up first.
My biggest barrier was my self-talk—I didn’t think I was smart enough or that I had the experience to start a company. I had all these really limiting narratives based around insecurity about why people like me are not the people who start companies, they’re the people who work for companies.
I think the most important thing for anyone wanting to start a business is building and adopting a growth mindset. There’s this book called Mindset by Carol Dweck; it’s about going from having a fixed perspective on yourself to creating this flexible narrative which is imperative to starting and running a business.
It’s not a rush to the finish line.
There’s this whole thing in the startup community that’s like, “Dive in headfirst! Go for it!” I really took my time. I was doing this as a hobby first while I perfected it, and I saved up enough money so that I could boot-strap the company and support myself. I didn’t jump in. I made an action plan, and I followed the steps, and I put one foot in front of the other.
That’s not to say that jumping in is wrong or impulsive. I just think sometimes there is a lot of pressure and people think they need to go big or go home. But the most thoughtful thing you can do sometimes is make a plan and meticulously execute.
While I had a full-time job, I would sneakily go to farmers markets to pursue my passions. I had low stakes—I didn’t have any investors; this is something I was doing for me—so I was having authentic conversations with as many people as possible who were using these products. Looking back, that was the most incredible experience for product testing and connecting to my customer base—it completely shaped my company.
People may not understand at the beginning—and that’s okay.
I had support in some ways, but nobody in my life thought what I was doing was a good idea—nobody understood it. It’s completely different—there wasn’t a precedent for bee products. I wasn’t like, “Ooh, I’m going to start the next NyQuil”; it was something completely novel.
That’s literally your edge. When I was met with confusion and skepticism that would scare or hurt me, I can now see that was me solidifying that I’m doing something really different. When you have an idea that is so unfamiliar to people, that they don’t know how to conceptualize, I wouldn’t run away from it—that’s not a bad thing.
I did get a lot of my support from books and podcasts. I was obsessed with learning about entrepreneurship and people’s different journeys. I would listen to “How I Built This” and then go on and try to do a real case study on their company. Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, the Stanford University podcast, is one that I listened to obsessively, and I started reading business books. It made me feel less isolated. I was doing something completely alone, quickly running out of money, and learning that I could become my own support and advocate.
Having a gratitude practice is critical.
Every single day I write down three things that I’m grateful for because every day is changing for an entrepreneur, and it’s really easy to get wrapped up. It’s really easy to tie your worth to your company, but it’s important to remember that no matter how much the company means to you— it’s what you’re creating and you get to be a part of—but it’s not who you are.