This Family Business Begun in a Basement Has Gone Big Time
Julie Smolyansky, president, CEO and director of Lifeway Foods Inc, is the next-generation leadership of a family business whose co-founders, Michael and Ludmila Smolyansky, immigrated from Russia. Her mother is the chairman, and her brother, Ed Smolyansky, is the CFO and treasurer. Lifeway is the first company to go public by Russian immigrants. The foundation of her family business was bringing kefir, a traditional cultured milk product common in Russia and Eastern Europe, to market in the U.S. The business that was begun in 1986 in a basement in Skokie, Ill., recently acquired a 200,000 square-feet dairy.
Because I am also from another country, Liberia, I've been thinking about entrepreneurship and family business as a tool for empowering refugees and immigrants. Julie's story is an example of how a family business is an option, no matter where you're from.
Starting with nothing.
Julie's mother, Ludmila, was "the brain" behind starting and growing the family business. At age 26, she arrived in the United States, not speaking a word of English. She opened up a delicatessen at the peak of the women's movement. She opened five more and became an importer of European foods. She discovered Nutella in Italy, saved all her money, and imported it when it was unknown. Julie says this about her mother, "She has a knack for trends and things that are high quality." Ludmila's deli grew into a $150 million dollar family business that her daughter and son are leading today.
Immigrant families and reverse innovation.
Julie is excited to lead her family business into a bigger position in the food space. They have created a new category based on a Russian food product: Kefir. Lifeway Kefir is a cultured milk smoothie consisting of seven to 10 probiotic strains. While Kefir may be new to some, it originates from and is a common ingredient in Russia. Julie is leveraging her cultural heritage to make, create and lead a new category in the food industry: Kefir sales. That's reverse innovation.
Demonstrating the American dream.
The story of Russian immigrants taking a family business public is inspirational and memorable. It stands out against global companies competing in the same space. Larger companies focus solely on marketing and advertising campaigns to compete. Julie's focus is telling her family story. Her father hired a public relations firm in the start up stages of the business to help tell the family story of Russian immigrants living the American dream. She believes telling their story over and over again to many as many people and in as many ways as possible is her competitive advantage. When she took over the family business at age 27, she used social media to tell the family story, making it one of the first food brands to actively use it.
Close relationships help.
Julie credits much of her family business success to being a close knit family. She works closely with her brother, Ed. She's happy that working with a family member can make open communication and transparency much easier. "It's a quick way to cut out politics when it's you and your sibling working out an issue, versus a co-worker," Julie says. "When you work with a co-worker you have to be more diplomatic. With family, you can go straight to the point."
Julie is upfront that family business is best for close families who take care of one another. "Like anything, it has good things and bad things. I love it and it's how I've always lived and grew up."
Julie hopes to empower women and girls around the world through entrepreneurship. She is a member of the United Nations Global Entrepreneurs Council, a strategic advisory council bringing together leading entrepreneurs who are committed to finding innovative solutions to global problems. Her work includes promoting entrepreneurship in a refugee camp in Uganda.
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