It Takes Guts: Superfood and Super CEO Julie Smolyansky at SXSW
Jessica Yellin and Julie Smolyansky at SXSW in Austin on March 12, 2023. Credit: Allison Teegardin
By Allison Teegardin
On Sunday, March 12, 2023, in a ballroom at the Austin Marriott Downtown, two accomplished Jewish women sat in conversation for a SXSW session. The CEO of Lifeway Foods Julie Smolyansky and journalist and former Chief White House Correspondent, Jessica Yellin, captured the audience’s attention with their knowledge and authenticity. As many of the sessions are following this year at SXSW, it all began with a story.
At the age of 27, Smolyansky “devastatingly” became the CEO of the family company Lifeway Foods, when her father, Michael unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack at the age of 55. Overnight, she became the youngest female CEO of a publicly held company. She recalls being told to sell off the company because there was no way she could run it. Instead, she assumed the massive responsibility, got to work and today, the company is thriving with a reported $130 million in sales last year. When Smolyansky became CEO, the company had been in business for 11 years. However, the story begins two thousand years earlier.
In 1976, Smolyansky’s parents immigrated with her from the former Soviet Union to the U.S. with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) when she was one year old. The Smolyansky’s were the first of 48 families who settled in the Chicago, Illinois area at that time. Having only $116 in their pockets when they came to the U.S., the Smolyansky’s worked strenuously to build their new life. Michael, a trained mechanical engineer, worked as a draftsman at an engineering firm and Smolyansky’s mother, Ludmila, opened Chicago’s first Russian delicatessen within less than two years of arriving.
Smolyansky recalls her mother being in awe of all the food in America but disappointed that none were representative of home. A true pioneer, Ludmila began importing Eastern European foods and became the “go to” spot for new immigrants to find food as well as information on how to settle. Yet amidst all the success, one particularly important thing was missing from the refrigerator – kefir.
Lifeway Foods manufactures and sells an ancient Slavic superfood known as kefir. This cool, tart, creamy drinkable beverage is made with milk and fermented, resulting in billions of beneficial probiotics. Kefir is made by starting with kefir grains which are clusters of beneficial bacteria and yeast. The grains are then added to milk and a natural fermentation process occurs. During this process, milk’s lactose breaks down and becomes lactic acid, giving it the iconic tart taste.
The drink is credited with many health benefits and even increasing longevity. In her cookbook, “The Kefir Cookbook,” Smolyansky writes, “These grains date back two thousand years to the Caucasus Mountains of Europe, where my family’s ancestors enjoyed superior health and longer lives thanks to their fermented drink of choice-many of today’s residents achieve centenarian status, living past one hundred years old.” It is even believed that Cleopatra bathed in kefir.
Without a business plan, Michael began making kefir in the basement of their home. He had secured the kefir grains and was trying to get the recipe exactly right. Smolyansky recalls having to taste every single batch. Yellin herself recalls trying the drink for the time when she was a child. Once the recipe was right, Lifeway Foods was launched in 1986 with a single product, plain kefir. Two years later, the company went public. Today, the company has expanded flavors to include everything from strawberry to birthday cake to non-dairy oat varieties. With the vision of creating a healthy product the helps people, Lifeway Foods is also conscientious about its manufacturing impact on the planet. Smolyansky shared details of the company’s commitment to operating carbon neutral and sourcing milk from local farmers.
The conversation progressed from the history of the company to the health benefits of the product and ended with heart.
As a Ukrainian refugee, Smolyansky opened up about the impacts of the war in Ukraine, saying, “My father’s worst nightmares are coming true there. This is why we left.” Recently, Smolyansky sponsored her cousin and her family to come to America, sharing that they didn’t have passports at the onset of the war. They love their country, never wanted to leave and thought this would be over in a few days. A year later, the war continues. Holding back tears, Smolyansky said she plans to construct a plaque with all the names of the children who have died because of the tragedy and will make them all Honorary CEOs of Lifeway Foods.
So, what does this philanthropic, successful Jewish female CEO have to say to others who are building their own companies and careers? “Never give up. Believe in yourself. Always put on your oxygen mask first and take care of yourself. Lean into what you are good at and hire for what you don’t know.”
The session concluded with an audience Q&A and photo opportunity with the speakers.
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