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Exclusive: Kefir leader Lifeway Foods now has a female CEO and CFO

Exclusive: Kefir leader Lifeway Foods now has a female CEO and CFO
Lifeway Foods CEO Julie Smolyansky (left), and CFO Neha Clark (right) [Photos: courtesy of Lifeway Foods]

Lifeway Foods, the biggest U.S. supplier of kefir, has named its first female chief financial officer, making the drinkable yogurt business one of just a few publicly traded companies with women in both the CEO and CFO roles. Neha Clark, who joins CEO Julie Smolyansky in the C-suite, previously spent more than 15 years at Kraft Heinz.

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It is rare that CFO positions at publicly traded companies are held by women, but it’s rarer still that both the CEO and CFO are women. Just 25 women are currently at the helm of a Fortune 500 company—the latest addition being Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford, who is also the first openly gay female CEO. General Motors and the Hershey Company are the only companies in the bunch that also boast a female CFO. Even in sectors that cater to more women than men—the beauty industry, for example—women are rarely appointed to the CEO role at large, publicly held companies.

Clark’s appointment wasn’t simply happenstance. Smolyansky says that Lifeway, which sells a range of drinkable kefir, as well as kefir cups and frozen kefir, has always prioritized having a diverse workforce. Lifeway has nearly achieved gender parity in its executive and senior leadership, which now comprises 11 men and eight women. Per its 2017 EEOC-1 report, more than a third of Lifeway’s manager-level roles are filled by women. In total, nearly 28% of Lifeway’s employees are women and about 46% are Hispanic or Latinx; less than 2% of employees are Asian and 5% are black.

“I want my workforce, leadership team, everybody—I want them to be a mirror to what our society looks like,” she says. Smolyansky was keen on finding a woman for the CFO role and reached out to many of her contacts and women’s networking groups to source candidates during the hiring process. “I was personally surprised at how few female CFO candidates there were from public companies,” Smolyansky told Fast Company. “It was truly a blessing that Neha was even in the running.”

A Family Business At Its Core

As an Indian American woman, Clark also shakes up the racial makeup of Lifeway’s leadership team—and that of the archetypal public company’s C-suite. (PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and General Motors CFO Dhivya Suryadevara are notable exceptions.) In fact, Smolyansky says Clark was a good fit for Lifeway in part because of her ethnic background. Lifeway is, at its core, a family business; Smolyansky’s parents started the company in 1986, after immigrating to the United States as Russian refugees. When her father passed away in 2002, Smolyansky was thrust into the CEO position at just 27 years old. Years later, running Lifeway remains a family affair: Smolyansky’s brother is the COO and her mother is chairwoman of the board.

“Our immigrant background has always played a big role in how the culture of Lifeway is set up,” Smolyansky said, noting that Lifeway is also still family-owned 32 years later. “We’re very close-knit and tight-knit, and it’s very much a sense of family. That community building is very, very important to us, and it’s not necessarily something that everyone just knows intuitively.”

Smolyansky says that Clark, being from an immigrant family, understands the type of culture—probiotic and otherwise—that Lifeway seeks to maintain. In the case of Lifeway, that includes a willingness to work closely with two siblings in C-level positions.

But Lifeway has more to do beyond serving as an example of female leadership. Since early last year, the company’s stock has more than halved as sales have fallen, despite the fact that Lifeway reportedly accounts for 95% of the kefir market. Smolyansky says one of the hurdles Lifeway has faced is a shift in consumer eating habits and a move toward dairy-free diets, as people follow wellness trends and the word of influencers. (On the whole, consumer-packaged goods companies are struggling.) “We’re really working very hard to maintain what we have right now,” Smolyansky says. “It’s almost like flat is the new growth.”

That’s why the company is investing in plant-based alternatives, which Smolyansky says could “double our business,” since Lifeway already has a distribution network in place. Smolyansky believes “the pendulum will swing,” and that Lifeway still has an opportunity to introduce kefir to new audiences and educate them on probiotics.

“So many millennials actually don’t know what kefir is, or they say, ‘Oh, my parents drink it,'” Smolyansky says. “When they hear our story, they fall in love with it. So we have a big mission right now to educate millennials about the company and kefir, and that’s really important to us.”

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