This time three years ago, Thad Smith was getting out of jail, charged with two felonies, and homeless. Since then, he’s turned his life around and dedicated his life to beekeeping.
Smith, 49, now runs his own beekeeping company, Westside Bee Boyz, where he keeps about 50 hives around Chicago. They’re all across the city— from landmarks such as the Shedd Aquarium to residents’ homes. Smith will come in and take care of the hives for business owners or residents, as long as they pay for the maintenance.
“My business is different than any other beekeeper just because I created something out of nothing,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I just created what I wanted.”
After spending three years in jail for “writing bad checks,” Smith was released and had little to his name. Smith said that the two felonies killed any opportunity to get a job and allow him to get back on his feet.
“When I first started, I was homeless. I didn’t have shit,” Smith said, “Me and my daughter had a very limited relationship and my mother even barely spoke my name.”
After going to about five different agencies to find a job, Smith said he heard about the North Lawndale Employment Network, where Sweet Beginnings is. There, they sell honey-based skin care products and do beekeeping across the Chicago area.
“It was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen in my entire life,” Smith said. “The sight of all these bees just buzzing around… I was asking a thousand different questions.”
John Hanson, Smith’s instructor at Sweet Beginnings, was with Smith when he first got into the hives. While doing a demonstration, Hanson said Smith dove right into the hives and started to go to work.
“All of a sudden this guy just dives right in,” Hanson said. “You can’t move that fast because you’ll excite the bees and I didn’t have any protection on— that’s how I met Thad.”
Smith’s success with Sweet Beginnings grew to the point where he became the head beekeeper. While the program was incredibly important for Smith, he said he wasn’t getting the pay and treatment he thought he deserved.
“When you piss me off, you just generate something in me that’s going to make me want to get back at you,” Smith said. “I thought ‘how can I make myself better’, so I created Westside Bee Boyz.”
Besides managing hives, Westside Bee Boyz offers educational classes and lectures to inform the public about beekeeping and it’s importance, said Evelyn Vega, Smith’s wife. They do internships with kids and people who have been incarcerated and are looking for something to be involved in.
“His whole theory on Westside Bee Boyz is to give back to the community with education for the young,” Vega said. “In the summertime, it gives them something to do instead of being out on the streets.”
The company takes after Sweet Beginnings in that it educates and provides jobs for people having a hard time accessing employment because of obstacles such as criminal backgrounds, like Smith. Rodney Brown, vice president of Business Services and Education at New Covenant CDC, helped Smith with his vision of creating a company that does this. New Covenant CDC is a small business development center that provides counseling for entrepreneurs.
“Thad, in my mind, is an individual who is representative of a lot of guys who just need direction,” Brown said. “Who have had opportunities that they either missed or made some bad decisions but, with some guidance, they can turn their lives around.”
Smith’s business is an example of someone who messed up and got in trouble, but doesn’t let their background define them, Vega said. After being incarcerated, being able to get back on your feet and getting a job is often out of reach, and Smith defies that.
“He shows that by having a business,” Vega said. “He did his time for it and regrets it. But he’s moved away from that, stepped forward, and changed his life dramatically.”
Beekeeping has allowed Smith to find his passion. Smith said that he believes in it, and that’s why he’s successful. He never realized he could of achieved what he achieved without beekeeping and Westside Bee Boyz in his life.
“The end result is this: I have a relationship with my wife and I can pay my daughter’s bills,” Smith said. “And tonight, I’m taking my mother out for her birthday.”
To hear more about Smith and his hives, watch: