Even if you haven’t tried it yet, you’ve probably seen Lifeway Kefir in the dairy aisle of your favorite grocery store. The tangy cultured milk smoothies are stocked locally at Ralphs, Bristol Farms, Pavilions, Sprouts, and Whole Foods, among other locations. Kefir is known for its nutritional benefits, and Julie Smolyansky, Lifeway’s CEO, is passionate about using her products—and her platform—to help people live healthy lives.
Smolyansky’s parents founded Lifeway after their family emigrated from the former Soviet Union. In 2002, after her father died suddenly, Smolyansky became the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company at age 27. She has been in the top job ever since, and she wants other young women to know they have what it takes to lead.
How has the pandemic affected Lifeway Foods?
I feel like some of the circumstances that brought me into my career are, collectively, what we’re going through as a country now. I think it’s important to acknowledge the trauma that we’ve faced and shared together, because that’s how you can heal. We’re also navigating a health crisis, where our individual health is tied to each other, and tied to our communities.
When the lockdown started happening, we were getting ready for Natural Products Expo West. When it was canceled, alarm bells went off in my body. I really trusted my gut in that moment, and I made some quick decisions around supply chain and increasing our inventory. Given that it’s a health and immunity crisis, I knew there was going to be big demand for kefir. I feel really proud of the fact that we were ready, and that I was leading with my gut in those moments.
Can you talk a bit about kefir’s health benefits and why you expected demand to increase during COVID?
Stress impacts our gut health. Think about when you have to give a speech, or you’re on a date, or navigating a challenging personal relationship, and how stressful that can be. You get butterflies in your stomach, or some people have diarrhea or constipation, and all of that contributes to a disruption in microflora in the gut. Kefir can help in the regulation of our microbes and our microflora, especially at a time when we’re using so much hand sanitizer and totally destroying our natural flora. It’s so important to have this conversation around these small investments that we can make in our self-care.
Speaking of self-care, Lifeway Foods has been creating live programming on Instagram to help people cope with the pandemic. How is that going?
Right after the pandemic, we wanted to bring all of the best-in-class self-care experts to the masses, so that as many people as possible would be able to have access to yoga, dance workouts, sound baths, and more. One of my very favorite things that we have done is a collab with Deep House Yoga. It brings me so much joy. It’s uplifting, because the music has great beats and the instructors are so soothing. It’s 30 minutes, and I feel like I’m floating when I am done with it.
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Your motto is “Trust your gut.” Has intuition been an important part of your leadership style?
I think one of the greatest untapped resources in the world is the intuitive knowledge that women have, especially about leading through crisis. We’ve been doing this with our families and our communities since the beginning of time. Our stories haven’t been told. They’ve been written out of history books and museums, and our contributions have been ignored. That contributes to inherent gender bias, because we don’t see enough examples of women doing amazing things. I’m an advocate of sharing women’s stories and hopefully inspiring new generations of girls and boys to recognize our contributions. I think it’s really important for boys to see it too, because that will lead to them having more respect for their classmates in school and in the workplace.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Choose to Challenge,” encouraging people to call out gender bias and inequality. Have you faced gender bias as a leader?
The day that my dad died, his best friend came to my mom’s house to comfort the family. His best friend said, “Forget it, there’s no way a 27-year-old girl could run a company. Sell all of your stock. The company’s over.” That really pissed me off, and it gave me fuel. It was the key that unlocked everything for me. I still, to this day, think about that statement. I wanted to prove him wrong and show the world. I’ve always been a fighter.
When you were a kid, did you expect to grow up and become a CEO?
I originally planned on becoming a psychologist, and I even started grad school. I interned as a rape crisis counselor and at an eating disorder hotline, and I was an in-home family counselor. I had zero desire to enter into the business space, but listening to the conversations my father was having around gut health, I started to make the connection that what I really wanted to do is inspire change and reduce suffering. I recognized that in a business, I could do it with a lot more resources and scale that passion into a bigger conversation. Ultimately, I left grad school and came to work for my dad. I worked with him for five years, side by side, until he passed away. I’m so grateful that I went with my gut to leave school, even though that was a really hard decision to make.
What advice would you give young women interested in business leadership?
I think that bravery is a muscle, and you can get braver, just like you lift weights and your biceps get stronger. A big part of that is going with your gut and having confidence that your gut is right. Every time I’ve ever second-guessed my gut, I’ve been wrong. I really lead with my gut and lead with my heart, and less with my brain. Of course, do your research and pull your data, but that should be as a complementary piece to what your gut already knows. Even the things that don’t work out, there’s a reason why they didn’t work out—something better is coming.
Learn more about Lifeway Kefir at lifewaykefir.com.