At 27, She Unexpectedly Became the CEO of Her Family Business. Now She is the Leader of a $120 Million Company.
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In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
For Julie Smolyansky, business isn’t just about the bottom line. It’s about building a community and realizing her family’s dream.
In the 1970s, a young Smolyansky and her parents Michael and Ludmila immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine. On a trip to Germany several years after they settled in Skokie, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, her mom and dad were reunited with kefir, the cultured dairy drink that was popular in Eastern Europe but hadn’t yet made it to the States.
Once they realized how much they missed it, Ludmila suggested Michael try making kefir at home, so the basement became his de facto lab/factory. It soon became clear that he wasn’t the only one who was a fan. He launched Lifeway in 1986. Two years later, the company went public
Michael ran the company until his death in 2002. Julie was 27-years-old at the time and had been working for the family business for five years as director of sales and marketing. During a time of grief and upheaval, Smolyansky stepped up to the task of becoming the leader the company needed, and in doing so, she became the youngest female CEO of a public company.
Sixteen years later, with Smolyansky at the helm, Lifeway’s products are available not only in the United States, but Mexico, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Last year, Lifeway’s annual company revenue exceeded $120 million. When she first become CEO, that figure was $12 million.
In addition to running Lifeway, Smolyansky is also a passionate advocate for women and young people. She produced documentaries including The Homestretch, about homeless youth in Chicago, Honor Diaries, about women’s rights in the Middle East, and The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses.
In 2013 she co‐founded a nonprofit called Test400k, which works to end the backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits in the United States. And in March, she published her first book, The Kefir Cookbook: An Ancient Healing Superfood for Modern Life, Recipes from My Family Table and Around the World.
Smolyansky spoke with Entrepreneur about creating opportunities for yourself and why you need to always trust your gut.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think about when you’re about to take a risk or start something new?
As women, we are more afraid of [taking risks] and we are socialized to try to do it perfectly. That need to want to do it perfectly, and the fear of not doing it perfectly sometimes can be debilitating, so you don't move forward. You're afraid to finish [that project] or to start it because you want to do a perfectly. I can appreciate that feeling and I've had to embrace it and just jump. I've done other things to help me get stronger and to get to that point to release [the book], like climbing mountains or jumping off a pole attached to a bungee cord.
Doing things like that scared the crap out of me and forced me to get uncomfortable, to be challenged and get to the very edge of what my fear could be. Bravery and courage is a muscle that you can make stronger. Being able to share [the book] with the world was important and something I had to embrace. Even if people thought it was stupid, at that point I was just thinking, OK, I don't care. This is me.
Why do you think exercising that muscle is so important?
It's a skill that can be transferred into other parts of business, problem-solving and leadership in general. We all want our teams to be as creative as possible so that they can find the unique approaches to solving a problem, fixing an unmet need and working through a challenge. It takes a diversity of experiences and perspective to find those cool opportunities of creativity and problem-solving.
[Building with diversity] will ultimately make companies stronger, create better leaders and position leaders into places where they can do innovation that's life saving and world changing.
What personal traits do you rely on to pursue opportunities for yourself?
No pun intended, but I have consistently looked at and followed my gut. Every time I do it something amazing happens, something great, something that opened the door for myself.
I believe it does go back to how you treat your body and how you live your life. I consciously make decisions around the kinds of food that I want because I'm always trying to make my food work for me. I want to be fighting for me, whether it's giving me fuel for a workout or helping me stay stronger from an immunity perspective. The gut is a second brain and it helps us follow that intuition and guides us. I want to do things that make my gut stronger.
The idea of intuition is a skill set that women possess. But society has taught us to talk it away. To say, "oh, that's silly" or "why are we thinking this way?" But we should actually be following that intuition. When we do, awesome things happen.
How do you handle setbacks? What do you do to move forward?
I always try to approach it with gratitude, because it's a lesson. It's an opportunity to reflect and think and consider and to maybe do better another time or just even have compassion for yourself. I always try to have gratitude even in the challenging times, whether I have gratitude for my health or my family's health, I always try to look at every situation with some sort of gratitude. Even if it's a painful experience, I can think back and think, I got through it. I survived, I proved my resilience to myself.
The way that I've been able to still tap into my creativity when I feel stuck has been to get around other creative or inspirational people. It might mean to get out of my comfort zone and go to a conference and sit and listen to other folks talk about their projects, their work and their successes and failures. That usually will inspire me a lot.
How can you be your own best advocate?
Sometimes it's easier if you're advocating for somebody else, not just yourself. It's a lot easier for us, especially as women, to advocate for a whole group of women or for people outside of ourselves. I find when I'm advocating for someone else, it usually is me advocating for myself as well. So we could see that with the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. It was the power of a collective voice that made the difference.
I know that when I am speaking my truth, standing in my power, I'm speaking for all women and girls.