As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Smolyansky.
She became the youngest female CEO of a publicly held firm when she took over Lifeway Foods at the age of 27 in 2002. Since then, Julie has continued the company’s growth trajectory with creative product development and marketing, bringing kefir into the U.S. mainstream and boosting annual company revenues to over $100 million. Under her leadership, the company has expanded distribution throughout the United States, Mexico, the UK, and Ireland as well as portions of Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Julie has been named to Fortune Business ’40 under 40,’ Fortune’s 55 Most Influential Women on Twitter, as one of the Best Instagrammers of the 40 Under 40 list and was recently named a 2020 Champion of Wellness by VeryWell. She released her first book, The Kefir Cookbook: An Ancient Healing Superfood for Modern Life, Recipes from My Family Table and Around the World in March of 2018. She lives in Chicago and is the mother of two girls.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
In 1976, when I was just a baby, my family emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States. Within just a few years, my parents were living the start of their American dream. My mother had established a thriving delicatessen that grew into an international grocery importing business, and she encouraged my father to use his engineering skills to start producing kefir, a beloved Eastern European staple.
While I was proud of my parents and their success story, I felt my path was different. I studied psychology and worked as a crisis counselor with the intention of becoming a psychologist. As it turned out, I serendipitous found myself working part time at Life way in grad school, fell in love with the idea of empowering people through kefir and a business model that contributed to my purpose of reducing suffering in the world. In 2002 when I was 27, my father had an unexpected heart attack and passed. I became CEO of the company he and my mother founded with the mission of bringing the ancient superfood called kefir — a 2000 year old superfood from the former USSR — to the market and minds of Americans.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Lots of product development is trial and error. Our kids’ line, ProBugs, is now a huge success, but it was literally a flop when we launched it. When we initially went to market, our first design iteration had large, round, choke-proof caps on the tops of the pouches. Unfortunately, the weight ratio was off and caused the products to fall face-first on the shelves. Retailers weren’t happy, and customers didn’t want to buy the items in the set that were face down and in total disarray.
Quickly identifying the issue, we worked to re-engineer the products with smaller, better safety caps and now, our ProBugs line has some of our best-selling items. This experience taught us not to give up on a good idea if it stumbles out of the gate. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as cutting back on plastic, which is probably a good rule in general.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
“The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. Our entire company blueprint for growth was and continues to be based on this book and “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” Also, “The Alchemist,” which has inspired me to follow my gut, to trust it, and to embrace the journey.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My parents started Lifeway to bring the gut healing and immune supporting benefits of kefir to as many people as possible. In addition, because food was so scarce in their lives in the former Soviet Union, they had a deep sense of purpose to feed their community. That purpose continues to drive me and everyone at Lifeway now more than ever.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Trust the process. Trust that the universe has your back. Trust that things are happening not to you, but for you. Every situation is an opportunity. Even mistakes are opportunities to learn. And try to enjoy the journey. Entrepreneurship will break you, but it will also show you who are.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
First, I want to say how sorry I am to those who have lost loved ones to this disease. Whatever challenges I am facing, it’s nothing compared to the suffering and grief we feel for those who have passed away. For anyone who suffers from anxiety, this time has probably triggered even the most centered of us. In such unprecedented and fluid times with so many unknowns, where feelings of safety are compromised, it can provoke an elevated adrenalin and cortisol reaction to fuel our flight or fight response. Take a moment to breath and ground yourself.
Self-care, especially during this time, is a non-negotiable. Lifeway has been hosting self-care experts on Instagram Live to help our community feel less alone and offer up tools we know can have a huge impact on wellness. I’ve been jumping in on those and doing lots of yoga, meditation, and working out to manage my stress and boost my serotonin. And of course, I’ve been making lots of kefir smoothies. Studies show gut health is critical for mental health and kefir can even help reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. These are small steps that can have big impact on our day-to-day wellness and can even bring joy.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Leading with a clear plan, empathy, and compassion have been key. There hasn’t been a single part of business that this crisis has not touched, and navigating it required lots of visibility, nimbleness, and leadership. First and foremost, making sure our team was as safe as possible, had proper PPE, and was able to social distance was critical, since we were operating as an essential business in order to keep food on people’s tables.
I’ve been through my share of crises, so it feels familiar and oddly comfortable for me, and I think that lets the team know that even in rocky waters, we can manage it together. We’ve gone through challenges before, and we will do it again. I think this crisis actually offers a galvanizing and rallying effect. It’s how we build resilience. When we see the lines of cars and families waiting to get into their local food pantry, or when we get feedback from customers sharing how Lifeway has helped them during a medical crisis, it gives purpose to everyone at Lifeway and we all feel proud to be able to play a role in our community.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
First, I remind myself and everyone around me, that we have choices on how much news content we consume. It’s important to stay informed; being able to access health information and respond to local and national guidelines in such a fluid situation is critical, but you can limit it. You can put boundaries around your news consumption and use of social media. I find this helps me stay grounded, present, and centered.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Now more than ever we can agree that racism is a public health crisis. The opportunity to remake public health and empower people in a way that is inclusive to all is exciting. I’m also really inspired by the conversations we are starting to have around mental health and how stigmatized it has been. We now have an opportunity to help reduce suffering of so many who feel so alone.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
This time is like a portal, and it helps us focus and realize what’s important. It has given people a chance to pause, to be still, and hopefully, to find compassion and empathy for others. I think more than ever, so many have rediscovered their connection with the earth and feel centered in nature. Newfound mindfulness gives us a chance to listen to our gut, which I believe will lead to a more meaningful and purposeful life.
More people are empowered to cook. This time has forced people to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. They are playing with new flavors, new ingredients, and even having a little fun. People have unlocked the idea that you don’t have to spend exorbitant amounts of money at a fancy restaurant to eat meaningful and nourishing meals. We’ll be there to help them on their wellness and culinary journey. The fact that so many are finding gratitude in the simplicity of ancient flavors and superfoods is a defining inflection point.
I’m also really inspired by all the kids who have seamlessly started cooking with the help of TikTok and YouTube. Cooking has really become democratized; an entire generation will feel very comfortable in the kitchen going forward.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
There is a great opportunity to raise awareness and make immunity and mental health supporting foods like kefir, as well as self-care and wellness, accessible to all. People are tuning into our programs and starting to listen and make the connection that our lifestyle impacts not just ourselves and our family, but everyone in our community. It’s inspiring to see how many people want to empower their neighbors and invest in each other.
We’ll continue to offer free self-care and wellness programing with some of the best experts in the country. We’ll continue collaborating with some of the best chefs for cooking demos to help people get creative in the kitchen with our kefir. We’ll continue to amplify black voices and support impactful action and health for all.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Follow your gut; lead with your heart. Look for ways to solve a pain point. This is an extraordinary and transformative moment to innovate, to create, to offer leadership.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Trust your gut!” I was 27 when I became the CEO of Lifeway. The only thing I could depend on was my gut to guide me moment-to-moment. It’s easy to delegate decision making for fear of making a mistake or wanting to be perfect. But often, we already know the right next step: Start gathering data and context together to help process and then listen to your gut.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Find us on Instagram — I’m active at @JulieSmolyansky. Follow our company, Lifeway Foods, at @LifewayKefir.