Julie Smolyansky – CEO of Lifeway Foods

Episode 68

My guest Julie Smolyansky became the youngest CEO of a publicly held company when she was 27 years old. She is the CEO of Lifeway Foods, which is most well-known for its Kiefer products and she has brought the company's revenue to over $127 million with an international market. Julie has been named *Fortune Magazine's* "40 Under 40", *Fortune's* "55 Most Influential Women on Twitter", and *Fast Company's* "Most Creative People in Business 1000". On today's show, Julie and I talk about how she became the youngest CEO of a public company, her family's story and how that has influenced her, how to positively influence the world through business, her leadership philosophy, and much more.

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Kara Goldin: Hi everybody, it’s Kara from Unstoppable. I’m really excited to have Julie Smolyansky here with us today. Julie and I are friends and we’ve known each other for a while now. And Julie is the CEO of Lifeway Foods, which I think is best known for the kefir products. But I want to talk a little bit more about some of the other stuff that they’re doing too. But just a little bit of background. Julie lives in Chicago. Just actually in Chicago?
Julie Smolyanksky: Actually in Chicago, in Lincoln Park.
Kara Goldin: Wonderful and she became the youngest female CEO of a publicly held firm when she took over Lifeway Foods at the age of 27 years old, crazy. Since then, Julie has continued the company’s growth trajectory bringing an Eastern European product into the US mainstream and boosting annual company revenues to over 120 million dollars in 2017, from 12 million. Just like kind of badass, right that you took it from that, that’s amazing.
And under her leadership, the company has expanded distribution throughout the US, Mexico, the UK and Ireland as well as portions of Central and South America and the Caribbean. And she’s been named to Fortune Business’s 40 under 40, Fortune’s 55 most influential women on Twitter and Fast Company’s most creative people in business 1,000. Welcome, welcome. Welcome. So excited.
Julie Smolyanksky: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited. I am admiring all of your work and all the ways that you help better our world. And it’s just so inspirational to watch.
Kara Goldin: Oh, my gosh, you’re so nice. Well, I admire you as well. And I think like what we’ve really wanted to do with Unstoppable was really bring people who I’m fortunate enough to be able to know and have conversations with and just talk to them about just what’s going on with them in the world. So obviously, we’re recording this during COVID. Hopefully coming out of COVID. And who knows, but in the midst of it, it’s been a great time to actually have conversations with people and talking about going through challenging times and how do you look at things overall. But before we get to that, I want to just… Can you take us back to 2002, when you became the CEO, the youngest CEO of a public company, and how did you handle… How did you like think about that? I mean, were you just… Did you have fears? What was sort of your mindset at that point?
Julie Smolyanksky: Not so much fear. It was really pure cortisol and adrenaline at that point. And when my father died, suddenly of a heart attack aged 55, in the prime of his life. And basically everyone around me… Well, his closest friends said, “There’s no way a 27 year old girl could run this company. Forget it, the company’s done, sell your stock.” And that really fueled me, I think that angered me. And that gave me like a fire in my belly, and a defiance, and I was just adamant about proving those men wrong.
And also for me, I just kept saying failure is not an option. And I’ll just have to actually give you a little bit more context. My parents and I were refugees from the former Soviet Union. So we settled in Chicago, we were the first of 48 families that were allowed to settle through a slit in the Iron Curtain in 1976. My parents were real trailblazers, my mother learned English watching General Hospital. My father was a mechanical engineer. And in the first few weeks of life in America… We came with $116 in our pocket, and there were no Russian speaking individuals here to translate or help with that, because we were the first.
So it was really challenging and we literally came from nothing and not they not know what they were in for. And when I think about how hard they worked and that’s where kefir originated from when they saw this opportunity, and they thought America has everything, but it doesn’t have kefir and they found this one gap in the market and they thought, “Well we can bring this product, this ancient product that our ancestors intuitively consumed for 2000 years. How could it be that it did not exist in the United States.”
It was because of migration, it was because of immigration. It was because of the advocacy of Americans here demanding the release of Soviet Jews at that time, that I am here, that I’m alive and that everything’s transpired over the course of my life. I all kind of goes back to that time. And then I also think about my great grandparents, my grandparents, they came from this time where they were the first impacted by World War Two, by the Holocaust. My great grandparents were murdered in their homes in Kiev. My grandmother survived, she ran and escaped and hid in the forest and survived.
And I thought all of these things I kind of have these stories were in my blood. This resilience, this grit, this fortitude, and so I could not let all the things that my parents worked so hard for slip away. So the company, my parents founded Lifeway Foods in 1986. And then my dad took it public in ’88. He was the first Soviet Jew to take a company public before Sergey Brin, and before Google. He took Lifeway public. And so between 1986 and 2002 I watched my parents build Lifeway Foods. And I did not want that all that work to go in vain.
And so, there could have been… They could have sold the company right away after my dad died, or could have said, “Well forget it.” My mom could have said, “We’re going to just sell the company on pennies.” And we would have gotten nothing. And I said, “No, I’m going to leave this company.” And it’s what my father wanted. I spent five years working with him side by side. And it’s what he told me that I would do. And so I just thought I’d be a lot older. You know, I thought I’d be in my way late adulthood. But it was an abrupt pause in my life. It was a halt, whatever you think you were doing in your 20s I was not doing any of that. I was like building this company. And I eventually caught up. I caught up to everyone in my own way.
Kara Goldin: When you were in school in high school and college were you working like there?
Julie Smolyanksky: I mean, yeah.
Kara Goldin: So you didn’t just totally… I mean, it’s funny like a lot of kids of entrepreneurs just are like I don’t want anything to do with that at all. Like you had an interest in what they were doing?
Julie Smolyanksky: Well, yes and no, I worked for them always. Like I worked in… My mom had a deli that she opened like two years into our immigration a Russian deli, which became like Town Center for all the Russian immigrants that came through.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Julie Smolyanksky: I remember probably my first work I was four years old and I was working in the store putting shelf tags on the store and price stickers. I was always like a real hard worker. And I always really wanted to help my family. And they were very entrepreneurial, they had to be. And so I worked in all their various businesses, but I was a figure skater, I worked at the stadium, my local ice rink. And so I worked there to get free ice to be able to practice. So I babysat, I remember my first official paycheck, I was 14, and I’ve never not worked since I was 14. I worked, I don’t know four jobs, five jobs in college while I graduated in three years, because I didn’t want my parents to pay for the extra four years so I hurried it off to help them.
But I really wanted to be like a psychologist actually and I started grad school to work in social services. And I was really determined there. I was a rape crisis counselor, I did a lot of work with trauma. And I really had this like, at the core, I wanted to change the world. I wanted to reduce people’s suffering. I didn’t realize that business would be the pathway that I would do that. It happened serendipitously when I was in my dad’s office. I did not want anything to do with the business as a career.
And I heard conversations around how kefir helped people and the research that was coming out and since then, we’ve even learned so much more about it. And I thought, “Wow, actually, I see a usage for this besides like a capitalist, being a cog in a capitalistic society or marketplace. Like our product, our kefir, has ancient healing that changes people’s lives.” It improves people’s lives. Some on their deathbed feel their most relief when they’re drinking it. It is the only you know thing that they could have will say in a chemo treatment.
We’ve had people who have Crohn’s disease who were spared from having surgery and having 80% of their digestive tract removed or completely eliminated all of their pharmaceutical medications, just from food, from functional food. And I know you are the spokesperson for this healthy eating. And the fact that our food system makes us sick or it can make us better.
Kara Goldin: Totally.
Julie Smolyanksky: It can either be the slowest poison or the fastest medicine. And it just clicked for me this day, when I was in his office listening to these conversations, and it suddenly dawned on me like, I’m going to leave grad school. So I didn’t come back for my second year. I mean, this was such a hard decision because I spent my all of high school, all of college working to get into grad school to be a psychologist, all the volunteer work, all of it. And suddenly just out of the blue, just like that, it hit me. No, I am going to leave school and I’m going to come work for my dad. And it just was a gut feeling and it was, thank God because I had five years to work with him side by side and really learn.
But I was able to use all of my schooling. My work around trauma today it’s so critical to the work we do at Lifeway. You know, that gut feeling, that gut health, mental health, which we’re learning about. It’s so crazy, because now 20 plus years after college, I’m right back to the passion that I was originally kind of set out to embark on, and I’m right back in it. And really leading it with scale. I get to contribute to this conversation at a level that I never even dreamed of, honestly, because I thought I was going to be doing like one on one clinical work with individual clients, patients but [crosstalk 00:12:20]…
Kara Goldin: But your impact I mean, I see what you’re doing and your impact over the years is I mean… Like you’ve really been able to take that. And I mean, not to mention the fact just actually being the CEO and being very customer centric. I mean, all of that journey that you’ve been on or thought that you were headed in that direction. As you and I have talked about, I have a book coming out in October. And it’s called Undaunted. And part of what I’ve really put stakes in the ground around is the fact that yes, this is a book about building my company, Hint, but it’s also a little bit autobiography.
And I always tell people it’s not a waste of like… Don’t ever look at your last job as a waste of time or anything that you’ve ever done. Sometimes you can’t connect the dots until later. Like, why horrible things happen to you or things didn’t go the way that you thought. The beauty is that what I’ve learned is that you can probably connect those dots and I tell lots of stories along the way. And I mean, you’re like living proof of that, where I look at people who are on the outside, incredibly successful, but also you didn’t know you were going to be the CEO of your dad’s company. Like you didn’t know that you were going to do what you are doing today and you start on one path and then you said, “Well, actually, I’m going to go over here, and I’m going to take that learning.”
So it’s, I think that’s just really great. And it’s something that I think a lot of our listeners frequently write in and talk to me about, they don’t feel like they’re in the right career now. And then they start hearing Julie, talk about this, or maybe it’s a family business that they never really thought about, should I actually stay a little closer to this and start to really understand what’s going on and figure out if there’s something for me to do there or not. And but I think you’re just a living example of that, which is really, really awesome.
So just a little bit about Kefir. I mean, you talked a bit about this. I mean, what I think is so great is this came from… Really, it’s a heritage product. Where it’s like you guys… I mean you guys had to educate people, like I always tell people like when you’re launching a product, I mean, we had to also educate people about unsweetened flavored water. They were like, “Wait a minute, what do you mean like Vitamin Water actually has like sugar or diet sweeteners in it.” And so I think your product is very similar where you had to, I bet, for years had to educate the consumer about like the benefits of kefir how do you do that when you’re launching. I mean, you not only have to educate consumers, but you also have to educate buyers right at grocery stores and what the need was. I mean, it’s really hard what you did.
Julie Smolyanksky: It is really hard and with zero outside help. We didn’t have private equity, we still don’t. We didn’t have Harvard degrees. We didn’t have a huge bank account to do this with. We just had our story and we told it over and over again. And I really strongly believe in the power of storytelling, I’m so excited to read your book. And I love that you’re doing these podcasts because you’re telling these stories are giving people platforms to tell their stories.
And we have to do it over and over again. Just because you do it Once doesn’t mean that you’re done, it’s not a check the box kind of thing. We’re now a legacy product Lifeway’s been around for over 33 years now. So that’s over three generations of people that we have to continue to educate and build and increase that ring of consumers that are loyal consumers. And that word of mouth today, as you know, with social media is exponentially growing like wildfire. In good or bad ways. You know, it’s both, which is one of the challenges is to kind of control the narrative in these all these various situations. But kefir originated 2000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountains, in a region where the people there lived past 100 years old. And they attributed their longevity to their consumption of kefir and probiotics.
They intuitively in their gut, ancestors had this feeling that they could heal their body through kefir through the consumption of kefir. And until 100 years ago, microbiologist Élie Metchnikoff, started the original research, original science research around the benefits of kefir to the body. He won a Nobel Prize for his work. And it began, kind of… He became the father of immunity. And it’s really, his work… Like he’s really getting the credit, I think today that he deserved and even though he got a Nobel Prize 100 years ago, we are still learning about the foundation of his work. And the importance of probiotics and gut health is I think one of the most important things that we could think about or control actually. Whether you want to consider that as self care, or good nutrition or healthy eating whatever.
But the fact that we can control this in a world where it often feels like we have no control. To me, this is really an empowering and inspirational and aspirational idea. And so I think that telling the story, connecting it to science is so, so critical. And then making it accessible and easy for consumers to understand and then also access, distribution is key. So being able to go and find what they’re looking for, in as many points as possible is just the key.
And I read the Tipping Point, I know you’re an avid reader like myself, and I read the Tipping Point 100 years ago. And it’s this idea that you can have influencers. It’s like the new version of influencer today. But 20 years ago, when he wrote the book, it was these other ways that he described these various people that can impact and influence a market and be that tipping point for a product to reach mass appeal. And that’s what we did. It started with nothing. I mean, no one knew what it was. When I did my first demo when I was 12 years old at the local grocery store here in Chicago. People thought it was Pepto Bismol they had no idea what it was.
And today, so many more people know. And in part it was we educated kids and moms. Traditionally kefir was something that your grandma drank, your old Russian grandma would drink. Or maybe a hippie in LA or something would drink it, some far away… It was not mass appeal. And it took a lot of that storytelling to do that. I think entrepreneurs get so excited if they get like a big write up in like, I don’t know, Forbes or Fortune Magazine and they think, “Oh my god, that’s it, we made it.” No, I mean, that does not move the needle it takes like 5000 articles like that over many years to make it.
And then consumers, new consumers are born and new folks enter the marketplace and you have to educate them all over again. So it’s never, it’s never over and then again science, new science comes out like we just started learning about the mental health benefits. We never knew that until about five years ago. To the point where they believe that the gut is the primary brain. They are now learning 90% of serotonin is made in the gut, not in the brain.
And so when you thing about mental health, and we have these conversations every day about mental health. The fact that we have something so accessible at our fingertips and that it isn’t so widely known that if you consume fermented foods like probiotics, if you do yoga, if you get outside in nature. These are things that can move your serotonin in such a slight way, but it could be the difference between saving someone’s life and not.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, totally.
Julie Smolyanksky: For me, it’s like, the key to all of the things that we’re talking about whether it’s preventing COVID or reducing its impact or spread or reducing mental health or suicide. Or any of these big issues that we grapple with. Or who has access to healthy eating. These are all like really critical conversations that we’re really proud to be a part of, I think and share.
Kara Goldin: We’ve never talked about this, but my father in law is a gastroenterologist. He just recently retired in New York and was at New York hospital. And he has been really at the forefront of saying that gut health is like sort of… If you actually look at the guy, you can see so many other things that are going on. And he was very instrumental in the 1980s, actually seeing in the early 1980s when HIV was moving into AIDS, before it actually hit the skin, you could actually see it in the gut-
Julie Smolyanksky: Wow.
Kara Goldin: … first. And so he was… Yeah, I mean, it was it amazing. And so he has said for years that like, if you’re not feeling well, if you have, whatever mercury poisoning or like I mean, just everything like get in there and actually have your gut checked, a colonoscopy or whatever to actually dig in because sometimes you can see color variations, definitely polyps, things like that, but they can really like dig in and try and look at those things. So anyway. Just a lot of what you’re talking about is just super interesting to me. And I know it’d be really interesting to him as well.
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah, that’s powerful stuff. And I mean, I even from like a personal standpoint, I mean, I remember being in college like, right in the middle of a major mental health crisis and coming into my father’s office and kind of telling him and he just looked at me and he said, “Drink, LifeWay, drink kefir, you’ll be fine.” And I like thought, “Come on, you’re not listening to me. You don’t see me.”And he was right. I mean, he was so ahead of his time. And so to me, it’s just such an honor to be able to share that message and to hopefully give people hope, give people a sense of empowerment that they can-
Kara Goldin: I love it.
Julie Smolyanksky: … Be the captain of their ship and even very hard waters like we’re [crosstalk 00:24:02].
Kara Goldin: I love it. I feel his presence here. I mean, truly he’s raised such a great girl and doing such a great job, especially through this crazy time. So talk to us about overall like COVID and through this time with your factory. Your factory’s in Chicago?
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah, well, we have three factories, one in Chicago, one in Philly and one in Wisconsin. So we are all three were operational and continue to be operational through all of COVID. Being essential facilities. You know, interestingly enough, I had done work with the UN, and had actually been fairly well educated on pandemics. I’ve done a lot of global health work and public health work and work was kind of prepared for a pandemic. I was waiting for one to break out. I knew it was coming in my gut, in my conversations with various leaders.
And I think post 9/11 as part of our homeland security and food safety that responded to a pandemic was part of our safety plan. So we had it all kind of ready and I think right after Expo West was canceled I really took it seriously. Expo West for those of you who don’t know, is our big industry trade show. It’s like everyone in the entire food industry is there but, specifically natural food, which is now so mainstream, obviously.
So this was a big conference, my whole team was there, yours was probably as well. We were all built out, our booth was ready to go and they canceled it, two days before the show floor was to open. And I had just gotten off stage, I was just actually doing a couple speaking engagements in LA as long as I was out there, and got word that it was canceled.
And I just couldn’t believe it and that really elevated and kind of forced me to look at what was happening. I knew that COVID or Coronavirus at the time, was kind of unfolding. I heard it in January, or maybe even prior but I knew that it would hit us in January. So I had this like gut feeling Like, “Take this seriously prepare to respond. If this is going to be an immunity conversation.” I knew that. And I had already seen all of the numbers come out of the UK because we have business and UK too.
And the kefir business was skyrocketing. It was like up 400%. They had it first. So I knew it was going to be the same thing here, follow that path. And I think that that inner voice, that inner gut feeling and also like the power of feminine. Like we intuitively have the sense of leading in crisis, I think. And so I told my team to stockpile seven weeks of inventory, we only have three days of inventory on hand at any given moment.
As most manufacturing but a perishable manufacturer, we don’t have a big supply because it’s perishable obviously. Everything is made to order but in this one time, we have never ever in the history of the company ever done this. And so to tell them to fill out seven weeks was unheard of. And the fact that all of our suppliers and everyone just responded and got us what we needed. And that helped us. When two weeks later the surge came, we were able to ship every single case, not one case was missed
Kara Goldin: And how about the international business? Do you guys have factories internationally?
Julie Smolyanksky: So we [crosstalk 00:28:00] there.
Kara Goldin: And was that a dramatic change like, did you see a lot of shutdowns in those various countries or not really?
Julie Smolyanksky: No, I mean we [inaudible 00:28:16] the global shutdowns but essential workers, essential food supply to continue. So, I would say this was like scary because we didn’t know what this was. Today we’ve already we’ve gotten used to it, but as these shutdowns were happening, it was really scary. I mean we were just learning about this disease. We didn’t know how it spread and how serious it was. So it was really, really scary. And to ask people to come to work and continue to supply the nation’s food system and keep food in grocery stores and food pantries.
I mean, before anybody we had already been shipping to food pantries because we knew that that was going to be an issue when schools shut down. 20% of CPS students, our Chicago public school systems, are food insecure. And they rely on the lunch system to provide one nutritious meal for the day. And that was gone. So we knew that there was going to be a major, major crisis unfolding from food shortages. And so anyways, I think that because of that, in your gut feeling of that impending doom that I sensed, Gavin de Becker, the author, Gavin de Becker, one of Oprah’s favorites in The Gift of Fear, he talks about this. That there’s a gift in fear and I was experiencing it in my own body and then able to respond, take note of it, be mindful of it and then respond from a business leadership standpoint, to be best prepared and help my community.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, no, definitely. And you definitely do that. I mean, what would you say is your leadership philosophy?
Julie Smolyanksky: My leadership philosophy? In general, my leadership philosophy is always trust your gut. I guess my personal philosophy is that the universe has your back and to trust the process. People say talk about your failure or whatever. And I feel like it’s hard to even… I feel like failure is such a negative connotation. To me, I view it as a learning opportunity. It’s a chance to find truth and learn from and do better.
And so even in really dark challenging times, I can always find kind of a silver lining out of it. So yeah, I mean, trust your gut. I over and over time and time again, trust my gut. And then bravery. It takes bravery to trust it. And I think bravery is a muscle that you can continue to make stronger just like you would a bicep, you can make that bravery muscle stronger. And that gut muscle stronger, too.
Kara Goldin: I think you’re also not afraid to sort of do like your own path. Like, I think you lead down a path where I mean, just one thing that I read… I mean, you’ve done so many things. But one thing that I remember is when you were on stage with Lady Gaga, at the Oscars in 2016. So talk to me a little bit about that. And for those who aren’t familiar with why you were there.
Julie Smolyanksky: Thank you. And that’s a real pivotal moment in my life. A real liberating moment too. Well, I was an executive producer on a film called the Hunting Ground, which is a documentary that highlighted rape on college campus and the cover up of it. And as I was an executive producer, and I’m a survivor myself. So the issue is very important to me, but I had always done this work.
I had done work in sexual violence prevention for 30 years. And I had never personally shared my own experience, that I was survivor. And it was just, “Oh I’m doing this work.” And it was always about the work. And that was a great crisis counselor, I helped write the first teen dating violence curriculum in Chicago. Even before OJ and Nicole Simpson. You know, I was already doing this work. And so anyways, so fast forward, this was now like 2016. The film, the Hunting Ground, was nominated for an Oscar and Lady Gaga and Diane Warren wrote a song Till It Happens to you, which was also nominated for an Oscar, and an Emmy and a Grammy. The only song ever nominated for all three.
Kara Goldin: Is that right?
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah. And it won the Academy. So it’s amazing. And you know the video and the song is so powerful. Because not everyone’s going to sit through a two hour movie, documentary, but people will watch a three minute video and listen to Gaga and all of that. And she’s been so incredible and such a great voice and has empowered so many of us to come forward with her.
And so it was before Me Too. And it was one of those [inaudible 00:33:32] was one of those catalysts that I think was the beginning of Me Too. So right before the Oscars, a few days before the film team asked if I wanted to go on stage with Gaga, we had 50 survivors. So we all kind of came out for the song, or performance. Yeah, Joe Biden introduced us, it was a really, really powerful moment. And I basically came out as a survivor myself. No one knew. Just a few friends.
And it was liberating to me. It was really liberating. And I mean, it changed my life. You know, it became now part of my identity and [inaudible 00:34:15]. Bringing those two Julie’s together. And it’s been like a journey. It’s been a healing journey for me. And then, of course, a few months later Me Too happened. And now we have millions of women who’ve disclosed and we’re having a conversation finally. And this is in my entire life, I never thought I would see Me Too happen. And it happened overnight. It literally just overnight, it wasn’t a campaign, it wasn’t like something strategic. It didn’t come out of a firm that let’s do a social impact campaign. It happened organically and naturally in response to things that were happening in culture.
And I think when we came out on that stage, and we thought every single person in the audience, I mean, every iconic face that you and I grew up with was all in that room in the Oscars in the…
Kara Goldin: I can only imagine you staring at them and it’s just again, it’s incredible.
Julie Smolyanksky: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson. I mean, Brie Larson hugged each survivor as we walked off the stage each one of us. Joe Biden had a secret meeting, with each one of us. And we had private time with Joe Biden to…
Kara Goldin: That’s incredible.
Julie Smolyanksky: It was so generous and beautiful. And I saw there was not a tear, a dry face in the crowd. And I knew in those moments that everyone was crying not for us, but for themselves. And I just knew that had their own stories. And so lo and behold, Me Too happens. And I really feel like it was that moment that was very empowering for a lot of the women that were in the audience to see the collective. Because I think until then, we had one off disclosure. We had this one accuse, and this one, and this one, you know the one case here, one case there. But this was like 50 individuals plus Gaga, 51 individuals coming out all together.
Kara Goldin: Powerful.
Julie Smolyanksky: And that was a very different… Yeah, very different experience. So that’s it. So now, that’s what happened.
Kara Goldin: I’m curious did you hear a lot from your employees and customers who had seen like you on… I bet and I think just to work for a company that actually stands for something. I mean, I think that there’s been a dialogue going on, particularly as so many issues have come up over the last few years. In particular, it’s like I don’t think you can stay quiet as a leader. I think you there used to be the separation between the CEO of a product company versus what they ultimately believe in. And I’m a huge believer that it’s your responsibility to show up and stand up for things that you believe in. And anyway, I just, I think you’ve done such a great job with that.
Julie Smolyanksky: Well, and the thing is there weren’t that many paths for me to see, I was trailblazing myself and continue to be. And you too, there’s not that many of us, as women leaders, as young women leaders, that are at a certain level. And on some level, it’s scary because you feel so isolated and alone in it. And so different than the other people in the room, but at the same time, it’s also liberating and freeing because you can do whatever you want, you can make it the way that you want it to be.
And I mean, I guess because it’s a family business and a family founded business to some extent, I have more… I’m not a hired CEO. I have a little bit more I guess freedom to kind of be who I want. And the story itself is very, very interesting, but, ultimately, to me, it feels like this is why I was born. I was born to be doing this. I was born to lead. And also like if all of the challenges that I experienced, if I didn’t do something with it and try to make it different, make it better than again it would have just been in vain it would have been for nothing.
And so I just needed to find purpose out of all of the things that happened and suffering that I personally experienced or the tragedies in my life. I needed to find purpose out of it or else I don’t know, again, it’s an existential question, I guess. But why then even be here. But to me, it felt like once I kind of survived, I was here, I’m running this company. I felt like I had an obligation to share the story because I know that this is an epidemic. That one in three women in the world are raped, beaten or murdered. I knew how privileged I was. I knew that being a white woman of privilege gave me an extra ability to move the needle, to change it.
Like if I had made it, I had to give back to my society or my community and try to make it better and use this privilege that I have on a very challenging taboo conversation, I knew that I was strong enough. And the worst had already all happened. Everything else is like logistics, everything else… The worst had happened. And so, I don’t know. I mean, it’s been sticky. Sure, there’s been a little bit of some tricky conversations that I’ve had and some kind of just people are fake didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary or knowledge of how to hold space for people who experience trauma or tragedy or suffering. Not everyone is good with that.
Whether it’s sexual assault or death or depression or whatever. Not everyone’s good with holding space. But hopefully as a society, we’re getting a little bit better about it. But anyways, I guess my purpose was to try to change it. And once I had my daughters, it became like, just laser sharp focus on changing it for them. And I was like, I have 18 years until they go to college, which is such a high risk time for girls. And I can honestly say that I spent most of my life working on a movement that I got to see actually get-
Kara Goldin: 100%. Yeah, yeah. And I believe that as well, that what you do every single day, not only being a CEO of a company and really creating change, but what you do with your movements and what you believe in. The people in your house are picking up on that too. Your customers are picking up on it, your employees are picking up on it. So I think you’re doing an amazing, amazing job.
So I ask two other questions. First of all, what is your favorite Hint flavor? And also, what is your favorite kefir flavor? Or Lifeway flavor? I always call it kefir though. Do you feel like more people call it… I don’t know. I just feel like you are the kefir that’s out there.
Julie Smolyanksky: Well, we are 95% of the market.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, yeah.
Julie Smolyanksky: We’re 95% of the market. Yeah some people say kefir, some people say kefir. I think that’s one of the challenges is people are afraid to say it and both are acceptable, in Russian it’s kefir. But LifeWay is the brand and I think you don’t even have to say kefir, you can just say LifeWay which is easier. But my favorite Hint flavor is watermelon. I love that. And I love cucumber too. I think that’s a really… I love cucumbers. It’s so refreshing and crisp.
I love what you’ve done. It was such a game changing product innovation in beverage. Like it was game changing, as you know, and I know how hard that is to break through and how competitive. And I mean, you are just a fierce boss to have taken it where you have taken it.
Kara Goldin: Oh, that’s so nice.
Julie Smolyanksky: [crosstalk 00:42:54] and expansion, and we use your sunscreen all the time. It smells so good.
Kara Goldin: Thank you.
Julie Smolyanksky: Oh yeah, absolutely. And my favorite kefir… Well I am truest, like a purist I guess. I love just our plain organics kefir but-
Kara Goldin: That’s my favorite, I love the plain.
Julie Smolyanksky: And my whole life I only drank plain and I only tried flavors for batch testing. But we recently launched coconut and lemon and matcha which is right here it’s behind. Coconut and lemon and this matcha are my absolute like… I can’t even keep coconut and lemon in my own house. And I hide the matcha upstairs and my refrigerator so that I can have some. But it is incredible… These flavors and they’re crushing it too. I don’t know there’s something really special about citrus with cultured fermented-
Kara Goldin: I’ll have to try that one because I love citrus, that’s-
Julie Smolyanksky: I need some. It’s still hard to get into but it just launched nationwide at Whole Foods which is also as you know really hard to get any new nationwide launches going. But these two flavors, lemon and coconut are just rocking. So I think those are really fun and their whole milk too. The whole milk is something new because I think growing up in the 80s and 90s I got poisoned with that whole fat free movement.
And so it’s been so hard for me to unlearn this fat free, having foods with that doesn’t make you fat, but we also have this fat phobia thing in our country. But it’s so great to see the kind of return to food and its original form and whole milk is really having a day right now. So that’s really I think awesome to see that we’re kind of nourishing our bodies with them with kind of real foods. So those are kind of my favorites.
Kara Goldin: I love it. And the final question what makes you unstoppable
Julie Smolyanksky: Oh, be unstoppable. Yeah, I would say that defiance, hopefulness and, and belief in that gut feeling.
Kara Goldin: I love that.
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah, I feel like there is this just inner knowledge, this belief that defiance is necessary in this life and especially as women. That the world will like knock you down and try to tell you that it is horrible and that you are horrible. The world projects onto us all the time. And it’s up to us to be defiant in the face of this darkness, I think and to continue to seek out that light. Even if it’s the tiniest little fairy light in dark, dark moments.
I think definitely touched really dark places. And the fact that I am here today is just sometimes I’m shocked myself but I have so much gratitude that I am. And it is out of this defiant little, little piece of hope that continues to live on in me, and that I hope to share with others when I’m feeling optimistic that I can share. But I don’t know somehow I… And again, it’s that gut feeling in the darkest moments when I lose hope. If I can find somebody to bring me just a little bit of energy, I can usually get out of it. And that has happened so many times for me. And so yeah, defiant hope just…
Kara Goldin: I just tweeted that yesterday. So find your people.
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah.
Kara Goldin: When you find your people, it gives you energy and it allows you to just really push forward and I think you’re just a great example of that so well, thank you so much. And where do people find you too Julie, I know you’re on social and where [crosstalk 00:47:04]-
Julie Smolyanksky: Probably, I play around on Instagram me personally. So I’m @juliesmolyansky. So J-U-L-I-E S-M-O-L-Y-A-N-S-K-Y. And then LifeWay kefir has its own account. Obviously, there’s great recipes. The photos are so beautiful. I mean-
Kara Goldin: I didn’t even mention your book, that you… Yes.
Julie Smolyanksky: My, cookbook, yeah, a couple of years ago I wrote a cookbook and-
Kara Goldin: it’s amazing and I have it and it’s super terrific. So everybody look for that as well.
Julie Smolyanksky: The kefir cookbook and there’s really fun stories from growing up and lessons from my entrepreneurial parents and little stories of immigration. They’re like little pre food, tidbits matched with really fun recipes that can help consumers and folks get versatile and play with kefir and just learn about it. And hopefully I’ll get to that memoir soon, too. I started an outline. But I never thought a global pandemic was going to be part of the plot twist and here we are.
Kara Goldin: The time as the time is now. I’ve gotten more done on the book through this time, as I was writing for your four years.
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, it’s crazy. So it goes into actual… It goes into presale in two weeks and then-
Julie Smolyanksky: I can’t wait to buy it.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, no, you’ll see a lot of stories, a lot of things that you just talked to me about that I didn’t know about you. And my dad played a huge part in… My dad founded inside of a large company, Healthy Choice.
Julie Smolyanksky: Oh, yeah, cool.
Kara Goldin: And so I was the kid that was always looking at him and all of his stories about the fisherman who caught the fish. And I was like, “Really do we still need…” And now like, it’s just I look back and he believed in the 70s, when he was starting… Actually started as a company called… Inside of Armor Food Company called Dinner Classics. And he was always telling the stories about like, the suppliers and like what they meant, and that if you didn’t treat the people right inside and sort of where it came from.
And then a lot of these large companies did away with a lot of these stories. So everything that you were saying about the story, he was such a huge believer in so ahead of his time in actually telling the stories, the why that… And we would run into people when we were on little vacation trips. We never took any crazy vacations, but people would be like, “Oh my god, I love that story about the Salisbury steak on the back.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God I cannot even…” What it meant and why he thought it was so important and what were the cultures behind it. And I was just like… Now, I mean, fast forward, many years later, I mean, it’s how we talk about our product too, and how you talk about your product.
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah, I know, that power of storytelling and we want to know where like our food comes from. And food has so much meaning to us and we gather for it and we need it to sustain life. So knowing where your food… I think that’s part of that mindfulness that we can tap into repeatedly and yeah. The little farmer, the fisherman, the entrepreneurial kind of human journey is one that is so inspirational and I do think that so many people want to hear it.
Kara Goldin: I love it.
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah. I will also tell you I have another movie that just came out. I didn’t want to forget this it. It’s called On the Record.
Kara Goldin: Oh, yes, yes, yes. Tell us.
Julie Smolyanksky: I’ll tell you very quickly on the record is now just screening on HBO Max. They just launched like a month ago. And it’s a new documentary, which gives voice to black women who’ve experienced abuse or harassment in the workplace. And specifically, we highlight Drew Dixon’s story. She worked for Russell Simmons. And so there’s 20 women went on the record to speak, you know on film for the movie.
This film is so powerful. It goes into the history of hip hop. It goes into entertainment, into slavery, into the sexual violence, mental health all in two hours. It received five standing ovations at Sundance when we premiered there this year.
Kara Goldin: Wow.
Julie Smolyanksky: So it’s a really powerful movie. It is so current, based on what the conversations we’re having right now. It really highlights the challenges that women of color face when they’re reporting abuse, but even specifically reporting black men as abusers. Because the women know that they are going up against the wrong culture, and they won’t be believed. Black women are notoriously not believed for their stories or for the sexual violence that they’re experiencing. So this film really amplifies those voices and [crosstalk 00:52:42]-
Kara Goldin: That’s so incredible. It’s on HBO?
Julie Smolyanksky: HBO Max. You can get a free trial for HBO Max and stream it. I think friends are streaming now too, so. [inaudible 00:52:54] new Friends. But yeah, so you can watch it, check it out. And it’s just such a powerful film. I’m so proud of it. And because it was done post Me Too. And everyone had so many more… Like the words. They had the vocabulary to share their stories. And the survivors were so much further in their journey than in the Hunting Ground movie where we were speaking with kind of college kids who had just recently experienced their abuse.
So having that ability to reflect and process and that time perspective in their journey was, it was so powerful and they just did such a good job of unpacking really difficult, hard conversations. So definitely go check it out. I’m super proud of it. It’s just such an honor to be able to be a part of some pretty cool projects.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. Well, I love how you want to get these stories out there too. And that’s incredible. So-
Julie Smolyanksky: Yeah, I think it gives it highlights this idea that we are not alone. That no one is alone and that we can face that darkness and we can come out and we can thrive. And I hope that for anybody who experiences like challenging times, like so many of us are experiencing in this current moment that people know that they’re not alone and that there are people right now ready to hold space for them and share with them. And that that’s part of that like human journey that [crosstalk 00:54:31]
Kara Goldin: I love it. I love it. Well, thank you so much, Julie. Everybody follow Julie and see what she’s up to. She’s so inspirational and go and buy Lifeway kefir too, and have a great rest of the week.
Julie Smolyanksky: Thank you [crosstalk 00:54:48] fun.
Kara Goldin: Thanks, everybody.
Julie Smolyanksky: Bye.
Kara Goldin: Bye.