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A lot of kids go into the family business. Most of them don’t end up taking over the family business while still in their twenties. But, that’s what happened to Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods.
Smolyansky became the youngest female CEO of a publicly held firm when she took over her father’s kefir business in 2002 at the age of 27. During her tenure she’s helped make Lifeway’s Kefir, sold in stores like Whole Foods Market, a household name. Over the years she’s been featured in numerous media outlets including ABC, NBC, CBS, FOC, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes and Fortune, and advocated for women’s issues at the White House.
She’s managed to accomplish all this while having a personal life too. Smolyansky is married and the proud mother of two girls. She says she is never without crayons, baby wipes or her iPhone.
It’s common knowledge that female CEO’s are rare. Young female CEO’s are rarer still, which is why I was curious to learn more about the challenges she faced along the way and what she would tell her younger self if she could. She graciously agreed to answer my questions.
Over the course of your career, what was your biggest professional challenge?
I’ve had so many I can write a book. Leaving graduate school to come work at Lifeway was a big anguish for me. I had spent all of high school and college working towards getting into graduate school to become a psychologist. Two weeks into my program I fell in love with working for my father at Lifeway Foods. I finished out my first year with my heart half into it and left the program to work full time at Lifeway Foods.
It worked out for the best because five years later my father died suddenly forcing me to take over as CEO at the age of 27 and my brother Ed as CFO at the age of 23. Of course losing my father and taking over Lifeway Foods the very next day at the age of 27 was incredibly difficult. On one hand, throwing myself into my work helped me process the loss of my father and gave me something to focus on. I didn’t know who to trust, what to do hour to hour, my heart was broken and I was in a state of shock and heightened level of stress all year. I had to stand up to much older men who were trying to take advantage of my family and the situation ̶ everyone from friends to attorneys, even my own attorney. I learned a lot about people both good and bad that year.
Another challenging time was the summer of 2008 when I had my first daughter just as the recession hit. I would be feeding my daughter at 3 a.m. watching CNN as financial markets around the world crashed upon opening. My CEO counterparts were committing suicide around the country. It was stressful to know that any move I made could impact the over 150 families at Lifeway. I kept looking at our financials and weekly sales, though luckily didn’t see any slowdown in demand for kefir so I did the opposite of what every other company did. During that period, I hired top talent that was being laid off elsewhere and spent more money on advertising as no one was. It all paid off. Total gamble but I felt in my heart we were doing the right thing.
There’s a lot of talk today about balancing our professional and personal lives, what was your greatest personal challenge?
One of the greatest things I did was read the book Total Leadership, by my friend and mentor Stew Friedman and I also spent a day and a half with him five years ago when I was starting my family. One thing that really hit home for me was the idea that we should not be striving for “work-life balance” per se, but that instead, we have to integrate our careers, ourselves, our families, and our communities into one overlapping circle. I’m not perfect at it, but I think about it a lot. I sometimes get three out of four integrated, and I’m happy with that.
I want to look back on my life and feel that in some small way . . . I left the world better for my children. That’s what keeps me going when the guilt of being away from them creeps in. I focus on the big picture. It also helps to have an incredibly supportive partner who values my career as much as his own. When I am gone I know that my daughters are not only with another person who loves them as much as I do but that we are both redefining gender stereotypes and that’s great for everyone.
As you look back, what was your greatest success?
Developing ProBugs was one of my biggest hits and ridiculously fun. Before my father even died we knew we wanted to reach the children’s market but struggled to find an entry that was unique. In April of 2002 I ran the London Marathon and was given an energy drink in a pouch on the course. As I ran my 26 miles and drank my fuel it dawned on me that the pouch is a perfect package for children. Easy to hold, fun and we could fill it with our kefir to get probiotic goodness to babies and children. I filed the idea away in the back of my head as a few months later I lost my father and had my hands full stabilizing the company.
When the time was right, I put the idea into action. I went to a packaging trade show to find equipment to fill a pouch with kefir. The name and characters came to me equally serendipitously from seeing a T-shirt promoting the Northwestern Science Department. It took time to develop something that had never been done . . . everything from concept to final product but we launched it in 2007. Today, ProBugs is one of our top selling products and pouches for children’s food is growing at 6.5 percent annually and expected to account for 23 percent of the baby food consumption by 2023.
I am proud Lifeway started this trend and disrupted the dairy and baby food category. We were able to offer a functional food with a very important health benefit by finding a creative delivery mechanism for kefir and probiotics to children who need it the most as their little bodies work to build an immune system. We made the package fun and easy which made them love it to the point where parents tell me their children make it part of their daily rituals. Time crunched parents get to put the spoon away and save 20 minutes in feeding their kids knowing they were offering something incredibly beneficial to their little ones. Kids feel proud and confident in being able to feed themselves. The best part is when parents tell me their kids rarely ever get sick and they attribute it to ProBugs. It makes all the struggles and hard work worth it. The entire experience taught me to be patient with the creative process, to listen to the signs and follow my heart. #LoveMyJob
What was your biggest surprise in business?
I mentioned some of the closest people in my family’s inner circle sabotaged us, the biggest surprise, was the kindness of strangers who reached out when they heard our story. They wrote emails, postcards and letters from around the country cheering us on, wishing us well, and telling us they would tell their younger children about our story. To this day, I am certain these collective thoughts gave us the energy and spirit to get through the most difficult times of self-doubt and mourning. The fact that random people would take time out of their busy lives to send these notes reminds me that no business can survive without the human touch. In a world that is so driven by data . . . it is the only thing connects us.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t waste your genius trying to be anything other than yourself. Spend your time in life doing what you are passionate about. Follow your heart. Use your skills to solve a problem – unfortunately, we have a lot of them in the world but it is also an incredible opportunity to change the world. Pull others up as you climb. Invest in your health just as you do in a 401k. Find a physical activity that helps you keep active and reduces your stress . . . running, yoga, biking . . . whatever it is do it at least four times a week. Forever.