5 Inspirational Takeaways From C-Suite Meet With Julie Smolyansky
Written By: Member Amanda Mayfield
On September 26th, She Runs It welcomed Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Kefir, to speak to members at our C-Suite Meet series at Digitas in Chicago. Smolyansky, a self-described ‘unconventional CEO’, shared her background and inspired audience members to make the world a better place by “following your gut” to lead and inspire those around us.
There’s No Way a 27-Year Old Girl Can Run This Company
At age 27, Julie Smolyansky was faced with a challenge most people could never imagine. Her father, Michael Smolyansky, founder and CEO of Lifeway Kefir, unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack leaving Julie and her 23-year old brother at the helm of the publicly traded company. Faced with the challenge of running the company during a time of despair and uncertainty, Julie embraced the role with great tenacity, despite feedback from even the toughest of critics – She once overheard someone say, “There’s no way a 27-year old girl can run this company”.
That statement fueled the fire that would give Julie the power to override self-doubt and motivate her to not only take over the company, but to grow Lifeway from a $12 million-dollar company to a $120 million-dollar company with an international footprint. According to Julie, “We can all do whatever we want, it’s a matter of how big you are dreaming”.
America has Everything, Except for Kefir
Julie Smolyansky has never been a stranger to adversity. As a baby, she and her parents fled communist Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States as refugees. Her parents, who did not speak English, were thrust into a world they had never experienced, however, their entrepreneurial spirit gave them the drive to open a grocery store, which began their experience in the food industry.
Soon after the Smolyansky family immigrated to the US, her father said, “America has everything, except for Kefir”. Kefir, a probiotic milk product that has been popular in Europe for over 2,000 years, is contributed to digestive health and prevents the growth of harmful bacteria in the intestines. Eager to share the health benefits of kefir with their new country, her father began making Kefir in the basement of the family home and selling it in the family’s grocery store. The product was a hit and two year later, the company went public.
The Importance of Strong Female Leaders
Julie attributes her drive and business savvy to watching her mother grow the family business. Her mother was working with food suppliers, usually men, from all over the world while running the family’s grocery store. Her innovation and passion for learning contributed to the growth in the family business. Fun fact: Julie’s mother was responsible for bringing the first case of Nutella to the US.
According to Julie, “Having strong female role models is so important. We need to give younger generations visuals of what leadership will look like in the future because there is a perception by society of what a CEO should look like – a white man with a tie. This will allow us to give future generations the opportunity to dream to be what they want while being their authentic selves.”
A Leader in Women’s Rights
Julie has demonstrated her leadership impact outside of Lifeway, as well. Issues surrounding women’s rights are very important to Julie. She is a certified rape counselor and has counseled women in hospitals and refugee camps all over the world. She has created a platform to create awareness for sexual violence against women by producing 3 documentaries, which have received nominations for an Oscar, an Emmy and a Grammy. She is also the co-founder of Test400K, a non-profit dedicated to eliminating the backlog of over 400,000 untested rape kits in the US.
When asked how she balances everything from her career, to her passion projects, to her family, Julie mentioned the importance of having a partner who supports her endeavors. As a mother to two young girls, it is important to her to have someone who understands the importance of inspiring across all areas of life. According to Julie, “Lifeway is about leaving the world in a better place than we found it”.