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Roxanne’s Bees: Our Co-Founder’s Story

by Burt’s Bees | 7 min read

Meet Our Co-Founder Roxanne 

Roxanne Quimby is the artist, homesteader, mother, storyteller, change-maker, philanthropist and all-around entrepreneurial force behind Burt’s Bees.

Roxanne’s story is not your typical MBA to board room success story. Hers is one of those incredible American dream stories, where serendipity and a whole mix of passion, energy and drive seem to alchemize something truly special out of barely anything to start. Her chance meeting with beekeeper Burt Shavitz in the early ‘80s in Maine sparked what would become Burt’s Bees, and later a passion for preserving wilderness that led her to acquire land with lip balm profits and advocate for the designation and protection of that land—which is exactly what happened in 2016 when she donated 87,000 acres of Maine woodlands to the U.S. government, which became Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Back to the Land

While her sisters followed in her father’s footsteps and went to business school, Roxanne drove cross-country from New England to go to art school—a dream she’d had since she was five. The zeitgeist of 1970 San Francisco challenged her worldview and she would leave there further inspired to seek a life of meaning, rejecting more material pursuits.

After art school, she and her boyfriend George bought and fixed up a van and headed back East to Vermont in search of land to try their hand at self-sufficient living—the rallying cry of the back-to-the-land movement gaining popularity at the time. They were like many youngsters then and now, who leave city life to find a slower back-to-basics lifestyle.

They found thirty acres for the right price in Guilford, Maine and with no running water or electricity, they set out building a cabin, growing their own food, chopping their own wood and eventually raising twins. “It was an idyllic time—we never fought about what to watch on TV,” remembers Roxanne. Roxanne waitressed a couple shifts a week and George worked a couple days at the local radio station to cover minimal expenses, but they were deep in the DIY existence for seven years.

“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” Roxanne said. The lifestyle began to wear on Roxanne and her marriage with George. “It didn’t provide enough stimulation for my personality,” shared Roxanne, “I’m kind of restless and a pretty curious person and interested in the way the world works.” It was the early ‘80s and the twins were six when she moved out of the cabin, determined to find a way to provide a good education for them, as her parents had for her.  

Meeting Burt

In the summer of ’83, Roxanne was hitchhiking when she met Burt Shavitz, known around town as the local ‘Bee Man’ who sold honey roadside from his yellow pickup truck. She was intrigued by Burt and they struck up a friendship—she would learn about beekeeping and in exchange, help Burt with his hives. “He was an inspiration for how one could live—very independently and with their own unique set of rules,” recalls Roxanne.

When she met Burt, his honey was packaged in reused gallon pickle jars from the local diner. After a summer of apprenticeship, Roxanne, ever the artist, suggested they package the honey in smaller containers with bespoke labels to sell at craft fairs, which were a big hit.

When she discovered his 200-pound stash of leftover beeswax, she got busy learning to make beeswax candles in cute shapes like teddy bears and fruit. They landed on the name ‘Burt’s Bees’, mimicking a stamp Burt put on his hives to prevent theft. 

After a boutique in NYC started selling their candles in the late eighties, business really picked up. They introduced a Beeswax skincare line, including the famous Beeswax Lip Balm in a refillable terra-cotta pot, to their product lineup in

1991. Roxanne worked with an artist in Maine to create a woodcut visage of bearded beauty, Burt for the packaging—it was an intentional jab at the unrealistic beauty standards so often promoted in the marketing of beauty products.

By the mid-90s, Roxanne filled the brand’s catalogs with stories, poems and lifestyle tips centered on their natural lifestyle in Maine. It outlined packaging and ingredient choices, even adding an index of ingredient lists with a percent natural of each product, a practice we continue today.

Headquarters were Roxanne’s kitchen, turned old school house, turned old bowling alley, until the operation eventually outgrew Maine all together. Roxanne moved Burt’s Bees to North Carolina for a more business-friendly atmosphere and continued to refine the product mix to focus on personal care vs. candles and other gifts. 

Lip Balm to Land

Even when Burt’s Bees moved to North Carolina, Roxanne kept her strong ties to Maine, eventually commuting back and forth. Inspired by essays of naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who spent time in the North Maine Woods, she became interested in preserving the woodlands just north of where the brand got its start. She even used the Burt’s Bees catalog to promote the idea of a Maine Woods National Park, encouraging customers to get involved.

In 1998, Roxanne made her first land purchase in Maine, with the aim of one day being able to create a national park in the same region that inspired Thoreau more than 150 years earlier. She continued to purchase land over time, with the goal of having it designated and protected.

As the company grew more profitable, Roxanne sold 80% of her stake and continued to invest in land for conservation. From 2001 – 2003, she spent $8 million to buy huge parcels of undeveloped land in northern Maine—nearly 16,000 acres in all.

Roxanne continued tirelessly acquiring land, against quite strong opposition from logging communities already facing economic transition. She remained determined and worked over the years to compromise and reach a common understanding with her adversaries. She and her children started two foundations to oversee their philanthropic efforts and today her son, Lucas St. Clair, leads Elliotsville Foundation and daughter Hannah Quimby directs the Quimby Family Foundation.

A Monument is Made

In 2016, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Roxanne donated 87,500 acres of “awe-inspiring mountains, forests and waters” in Maine’s North Woods to be designated and federally protected as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. The land gift was valued at $60 million and came with a $20 million endowment from Roxanne to support infrastructure development and operations.

Conservation of wilderness helps protect biodiversity, support climate resiliency, and safeguard natural and cultural resources, while offering the panacea of nature’s splendor for generations to come. 

"In Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. I can think of no better thing to do with Burt's Bees profits than to return them to the earth." —Roxanne Quimby

The Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, together with the National Park Service and Elliotsville Foundation, are working closely with members of the Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq Nations to include and respect indigenous expertise and perspectives in the development and stewardship of the Monument. 

In 2020, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association as the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary on the eastern seaboard of the United States and only the 12th designation in the world.

photo by James E. Francis, Sr. (Penobscot)

Giving Land Back

The Quimby family foundations and 50 land trusts have joined together in First Light—a continuing effort to learn the history of Wabanaki land dispossession and to work to expand Wabanaki presence in their ancestral territory. In 2020, Elliotsville Foundation restored 735 acres of ancestral territory to the Penobscot Nation.

We’re thankful for the blueprint of kindness toward people and planet that Roxanne built into the brand. Our team is proud to continue her legacy of reinvesting in nature and our communities—read more about our current initiatives and our 2025 vision for a Full-Circle Future and Resilient Communities in our 2020 Impact Report.  

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” – Roxanne Quimby

The Next Venture

Turns out Roxanne still has the entrepreneur bug and her latest venture is Eco-Kids®—offering non-toxic finger paints and other art supplies for kiddos. We’re loving it!

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