In 2002, Julie Smolyansky’s life changed in an instant. Her father, Michael, died of a heart attack at age 55. The next day, she became CEO of Lifeway Foods, the health food company her father founded in 1986. At only 27 years old, this made her the youngest-ever female CEO of a public company.
Suddenly, Julie was not only taking the reins of a business, but officially carrying on her father’s legacy. It was a role she’d been preparing for all her life. Growing up, dinner table conversations revolved around the food business, and Julie and her brother Edward would accompany their parents on non-school days to Chicago’s meat market to scoop up sausages. Lifeway was only half of the family equation — her mother, Ludmila, operated one of Chicago’s first Russian delis.
“Food is kind of all I know,” Julie told Thrive Global. “It’s been part of my family from the beginning.”
Today, Lifeway Foods distributes its healthy products throughout the U.S., and is currently developing an international presence. They also operate a chain of cafes in Chicago and serve frozen kefir at healthy quick service restaurants and universities.
As she’s grown Lifeway — with the help of her brother Edward, Lifeway’s COO — Julie has been driven by a deeply-held sense that food is more than just sustenance. It’s a powerful connector that brings people together.
“It’s something that crosses boundaries,” she said. “After all, everybody eats.”
And in a world where many things are beyond our control, she says, we do have control over what we put into our bodies, which impacts every aspect of our well-being. Central to her mission at Lifeway is helping people make healthy choices around food so they can live healthier, more fulfilling lives.
That’s where Lifeway Kefir comes in.
“The Champagne of Dairy”
Lifeway Kefir is a fermented dairy drink — a cousin of yogurt, you might say — packed with probiotics that have a range of health benefits, including supporting immunity and improving digestion. It’s also an ideal ingredient swap: you can use it instead of buttermilk to make the fluffiest pancakes you’ve ever had (not to mention healthier!), or in place of yogurt in your favorite fruit dessert (apple cobbler, anyone?).
From the time she was a child, Julie knew that kefir was special. She learned of kefir’s reputation as a healthy, almost magical treat from her parents. In Russia, people in the Caucasus Mountains — where kefir originated — would drink it and live to be over 100 years old!
“Now the research is backing up what people intuitively knew,” Julie says, “that kefir has healing properties and is good for the body.”
“Every day, invest in your own health”
Julie’s father was a positive role model to her in every way, except one.
“I saw my father destroy his health for the sake of the business,” she says, noting that he sacrificed sleep, nutrition, exercise and more in order to build Lifeway. And Julie vowed not only to live differently, but to build the message of well-being and self-care into the ethos of her company. All too often she meets entrepreneurs who fall victim to the same delusion that success depends on making damaging lifestyle choices.
“Every day, invest in your own health,” she says. “Put on your own oxygen mask, eat well, sleep well, exercise. Have a place to go that grounds you.”
To stay disciplined, she puts her workouts in her calendar. She runs several times a week, and some of her best ideas come when she’s out on the trail. She’s run 13 marathons, which has given her a metaphor for taking care of herself and making healthy lifestyle choices.
“I believe that our careers are a marathon,” she says. “Life is like that, your career is like that, and building a business is like that. It can’t be like a 5k.”
As a business leader, she does it not only with herself in mind, but with Lifeway’s employees.
“You can’t be there for your team,” she says, “if you don’t take care of yourself.”
This article was produced by Thrive Global and sponsored by Lifeway Foods.