Julie Smolyansky became CEO of Lifeway Foods at 27, handed the reins when her father–a Russian immigrant who founded the firm after arriving in this country with just $116–died unexpectedly. At the helm of what has grown to be a $110 million business, Smolyansky talks about having three missions, which are all intertwined.
First, she believes that entrepreneurship itself can change the world–creating jobs, raising living standards. Second, she believes in the health benefits of her company’s core product, the probiotic drink kefir, and so by growing sales she believes she is helping the well-being of millions of people.
Finally, Smolyansky is mindful that, with relatively few woman CEOs running companies, she is a role model who in her actions and her example can pave the way for others.
These missions all came together recently when she had to decide on a new marketing plan for Lifeway. Early on at the company, Smolyansky created an ad around a young, beautiful, superthin model–and got such a strong, negative response from Lifeway’s core customers that she pulled the campaign and determined never again to show pictures of people in the company’s ads. But with the launch of a new manufacturing facility this year, she needed to ramp up the emotional intensity of the company’s offerings to prod demand. So she decided to return to using photographs in ads–only this time, she started with a photo of herself when she was pregnant, under the tag line “Mother Culture.”
“Putting my pregnancy photos out there was a big deal,” she says. “You don’t see pregnant CEOs. Marissa Mayer certainly didn’t put herself out there. But we wanted to start a conversation about body image, about what it means to be a mother, about what it means to be a CEO.”
Smolyansky also talks about philanthropic efforts she’s engaged in, as if they are separate from her business mission. “Today I got an approach from Autism Speaks, about doing something with them, it’s a great cause. But it’s not something I’m super-passionate about. I had to say no. For me, it’s women and girls, health and wellness, consciousness around food.” She’s supported several documentaries, including Honor Diaries, about violence against girls in Muslim-majority countries; she’s become executive producer on a film about sexual assault on university campuses.
She doesn’t see these outside efforts as marketing for Lifeway. In fact, she becomes downright vehement at the suggestion. “I don’t do this to sell more product,” she avers. But when pressed, she does admit, “It goes back to the idea of consciousness and mindfulness.”
All of what Smolyansky does springs from the same place–a connected, integrated interaction. It’s the same way for all of us, even if we often times don’t recognize it. “There are issues that I can’t turn away from,” Smolyansky says. “Your passion is the thing that keeps you up at night, the thing you don’t want to stop reading about.”
“In high school and college, I thought of business as bad, the evil empire. I majored in psychology, went to grad school, planned to be a psychologist. I volunteered at a social agency in Chicago for off-the-grid families. But I got frustrated. I didn’t have enough tools to make the lives of these kids better. There were bigger inequalities that I couldn’t change: the education system, violence, family situations, foster care, so many things.”
“And then one day, I almost got killed in the field. There was a gang fight. One group was chasing someone around my car, carrying two-by-fours, and blood was splattering on my car. I just ducked down. I was sure they’d go after me, but they passed. I called my dad afterward and said, I have to get out of this, pay me minimum wage. Within two weeks, I fell in love with Lifeway.”
In just a few short years, after her father passed away, Smolyansky found herself CEO, with many doubters that she was up to the task. “I didn’t take a single business class in school, I learned on the job.” She wasn’t focused on a larger mission at first: “I said, hey, I’ve got to succeed. I put my head down: work, work, work.” But as she found her footing, “that’s when I started to say, What else can I impact?”
“I saw my parents fulfill their dream, and the path to empowerment was through entrepreneurship. Lifeway was at $110 million in revenue in 2013, more than double since the recession, triple the workforce. We recently acquired a 200,000-square-foot facility in Wisconsin which will have five times more capacity; now we need to create demand to get to $500 million.” And as the company grows, she knows, the workforce will be able to grow further, and she will enable a broader entrepreneurial impact.
“My family was part of the first set of Jewish immigrants from Soviet Russia to be allowed to come to this country,” Smolyansky says. “The idea of balance was not in our mind-set. My dad worked all the time, weeks went by and I barely saw him. My mom too. But as you create financial stability, you can open up to other possibilities. Balance becomes easy when you’re passionate about something. Nothing feels like work.”