How She Built A $150 Million Kefir Company?

Julie Smolyansky slept little during her first few years as CEO of Lifeway Foods. She was pressed for time. Following her father's heart attack death, Smolyansky unexpectedly rose to the position of CEO of her family business. In 2002, at the age of 27, she became the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company. In the footsteps of her father, Smolyansky expanded Chicago-based Lifeway into a global distributor of Probiotics aid in digestion and kefir is a popular drinkable yogurt-like cultured milk product in Eastern Europe. Major grocery stores like Walmart, Kroger, and Whole Foods carry Lifeway products, which include yogurt-like cups, cheeses, and kefir drinks.

How was Lifeway Foods founded?

Julie Smolyansky said about thirty-one years ago, my parents, who were refugees from the former Soviet Union, came to the United States and settled in Chicago. It was then that they founded Life way Foods. Out of 48 families, they were the first to be permitted to relocate to Chicago. Her mother opened Chicago's first Russian deli two years after moving there and serving the city's influx of new immigrants. It made it possible for her to work in the food industry, as did her family. In 1985, while they were attending a trade show in Germany, my dad went to the grocery store and purchased three bottles of kefir. "America has everything, but not kefir," my father remarked. "You're an engineer, so why don't you build a plant and make it? I'll sell it in my distribution system," my mother then said. She was now acting as a distributor and importer at that point, delivering food to Russian-populated areas of the United States. Six months after that trip to Germany, she began selling the kefir, and they established Life way, introducing natural probiotics to the American market. My father kept expanding Life way and went public in 1988.

What brought you into the family business?

Becoming a psychologist was my intended career. Even though I truly didn't want to work for the family company, I developed a strong affection for Life way and kefir. My drive to serve others found a home in the food industry, where it is now utilized to develop and market this brand. After moving in the middle of my graduate program to live with my dad, I dropped out and started working full-time at Life way. Over the course of five years, my dad and I worked side by side. He suddenly died in 2002 after suffering a heart attack. That day, I was appointed CEO of It was 27 years old. At a publicly traded company, I rose to become the youngest female CEO.

What was it like to become CEO at such a young age after your family tragedy?

Without a doubt, it was the worst period of my life and our lives together. Having to concentrate on the business was, on the one hand, a distraction. In addition, my dad would have preferred it to be that way. He would have wanted us to concentrate on our jobs and the business he had so deeply loved. Amidst the challenges, we discovered solace in unexpected places. I remember one evening, while grappling with the stress, I stumbled upon my dad's cherished kefir recipe. It was a bittersweet moment, as the aroma and memories associated with it brought a sense of comfort and connection, reminding us of the shared joy he found in simple pleasures. In those moments, even the kitchen became a haven, offering a brief respite from the overwhelming reality we faced.