Retirement brings to mind relaxation: cruises, golfing and bird-watching. But one Provo native wanted more than relaxation.
Dr. Lee Benson, a retired university professor, is working on starting a new business/non-profit organization unlike any Utah has seen before — the Utah Valley Business Beehive.
“I call it the Business Beehive Incubator because all the businesses help each other and work together,” said Benson. “I am focusing on helping the neediest of needy in our culture: those who have been in and out of jail, are overcoming addictions, single parents, homeless and those caught in a poverty cycle.”
Benson said the area where he chose to build the Beehive is in the middle of the poorest part of Provo.
The Beehive currently has nine businesses, including furniture refurbishing, personal life coaching and antenna manufacturing.
Thomas McGowan is one of the men who has been influenced by Benson and is working with the Beehive. McGowan explained there are no homeless shelters in Provo, no addiction recovery facilities or soup kitchens. He said some homeless people try to go to jail just so they can have a roof over their heads. In fact, McGowan has been in and out of jail 23 times.
“Just seeing Benson and the people he is helping gives me hope,” said McGowan.
Benson said he began helping people like McGowan when he had a friend who got himself into trouble. His friend owned a rental furniture business and became involved in drugs, started stealing to pay for his addiction and was eventually arrested.
Benson and his wife were friends with the family and wanted to help. The jail did not have many rehabilitation programs, so Benson asked if he could teach inmates about entrepreneurship, hoping when they got out of jail, they would be able to finance themselves.
Jails in Ohio, California, Texas and Hawaii adopted similar classes to help the inmates after Benson’s classes began.
Benson used to teach entrepreneurship and small business at universities across the U.S. He was the M.B.A. director at the University of Wisconsin and Indiana University, endowed entrepreneurship chair holder and honored as a distinguished professor.
Benson received his bachelor’s and M.B.A. from BYU. He was a recipient of BYU’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 1995 for helping the LDS Church on numerous occasions through his connections around the world.
One occurrence concerned two LDS missionaries who were taken hostage in Russia in 1998. Benson said he made friends with people in high places while he was teaching at universities there. He told them of the situation and asked if they would help. Through Benson’s connections the missionaries were rescued.
The former Soviet Union, Africa, Cuba, China, Mexico and 40-50 other countries all benefited from Benson’s influence in entrepreneurship. Many of these countries have implemented business programs because of Benson’s impact.
Bashu Lohani is a recent BYU graduate who is helping Benson develop his website.
“Dr. Benson could be doing anything with his time now — he could be traveling the world,” said Lohani. “But he is here helping people who aren’t exactly accepted by the rest of society.”
Zach Browley is a former convict who hopes to start a cooking business at the Beehive.
“I have a lot of hope working here with all the support of others who are starting out,” said Browley.
Ada Aguilar was the first to benefit from the Beehive after she started her furniture refurbishing business. She had started a business earlier in life, but when the market went south she lost everything.
“I like being surrounded by other people who are just starting because we all help each other,” said Aguilar. “I don’t think you can find a place like this anywhere else.”
In the future, Benson hopes to have all 15 spaces in his current building full, and to expand them further.
“I hope to buy a restaurant and beauty salon and put someone with management skills over them,” said Benson. “At the restaurant, I would have people pay only what they can afford.”
He also hopes to set up a housing facility for homeless men and women.
“We are teaching people how to fish,” Benson said. “We are not teaching them how to find free fish handouts.”