Meet the Fearless CEO Who Took Over a Multi-Million Dollar Kefir Company in Her 20s

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Julie Smolyansky knows what it takes to start a food business from scratch. It’s basically in her DNA. She’s the CEO of Lifeway Foods, a multi-million-dollar company that her parents started in the 1980s to introduce kefir — a probiotic, cultured dairy beverage — to the States. But the road to get here has been anything but smooth.

Julie and her family fled the former Soviet Union in the 1970s as refugees and settled in Chicago. To support their family, Julie’s mom, Ludmilla, hustled to open a Russian deli in their neighborhood, catering to the palates of the new flood of immigrants. While Julie’s mom taught herself English by watching soap operas and simultaneously tackled the responsibilities of entrepreneurship, importing and distributing eastern European food to other delis all across the country, Julie picked up more than a few lessons of her own.

The Smolyanskys later expanded their food business scope by starting Lifeway to put drinkable cultured yogurt, a staple in their home country, on Americans’ radar. After the sudden death of her father in 2002, Julie took the helm at age 27, becoming the youngest female CEO of a publicly held firm. Even though the company has been around for nearly 32 years, Julie is still doing the work to educate Americans about kefir’s benefits (and so much more).

Kefir (which has been around for over 2,000 years) is a tangy, fermented milk beverage that is most often likened to drinkable yogurt. It is made by combining milk with kefir “grains” (which are live yeast cultures) and lactic acid bacteria. The resulting beverage is high in protein, calcium, vitamin D, and active probiotic cultures meant to promote good gut health.

We got a chance to chat with Julie about her family’s journey, how tough it is to break into the food business space, and how Oprah helped to raise her.

On how hard her family hustled after immigrating to the U.S.

My parents were some of the first trailblazing immigrants from the former Soviet Union who dreamed of a better life for themselves. When we arrived in Chicago, the food was totally different than what we were used to, so my mom started a Russian deli. Before she even knew who Gloria Steinem was, she was cutting multi-million-dollar contracts and international deals — mostly with all men!

Ten years into this entrepreneurial dream, my father purchased a few bottles of kefir from a trade show in Germany and it gave him an idea. He said, “America has everything but it doesn’t have kefir.” He was an engineer who designed plants and machinery, and my mom had this huge food distribution network, so the lightbulb went off. Six months later, they started making kefir our of our basement and incorporated Lifeway Foods.

On the biggest challenge of making kefir a household name.

Kefir has been around for over 2,000 years, but it’s still in its infancy in the U.S. It’s been an acquired taste. In the early days, Americans didn’t like to talk about bacteria, so when I first started working with my dad, he told me to “never connect the product with ‘bugs’ — Americans will flip out!”

I think we’re ready to talk about probiotics now and Lifeway has always pushed the conversation, educating people about “good bugs.” We have been talking to people every day for three decades spreading the world about what kefir is. Timing is everything and in the 1990s, Americas were not ready for a conversation about bacteria in their food. Now they are.

On the one thing she wished people knew about kefir.

Two things: Not all probiotics are created equal, and the movement to eliminate dairy is misguided! There are so many probiotic products on the market now, but I’ve tested so many in the lab and almost everything is kind of dead.

Fermented dairy (aka kefir) is the number-one way to consume active probiotics. Research has shown that the best way for active cultures to survive is when they’re encapsulated in lactose. For people who have been instructed to eliminate dairy from their diets, kefir is an exception. Those who are lactose-intolerant can still drink kefir because the bacteria is digesting the lactose that your body cannot.

On her best advice for food entrepreneurs just starting out.

The biggest thing I would say is to do really well in just one market, and then in each new market as you grow. Don’t start out trying to be a national company immediately — you will bankrupt yourself. Focus on one market, show success, gain a cult-like following, and slowly spread over time. I see so many people fail when they try to sit on too many chairs. It’s taken us 30 years to get here — we built this out bottle by bottle.

On speaking out about the #MeToo movement sweeping the food space.

There are so many reasons I speak out — first and foremost, it’s because my family has survived so much already. I come from a family of Holocaust survivors, and my parents took the risk to come to the U.S. for freedom of speech and to realize their entrepreneurial dreams. They taught me that we have an obligation to speak out when you see things that are wrong.

I am a feminist who grew up in the women’s movement and have survived sexual assault — and I promised myself that if I survived that I would tell my story. This is a massive epidemic that’s happening and has repercussions that last forever. With my role in the food space I try to teach people that if you can’t control what happens around you, you can control how you care for yourself.

On who she’s most inspired by right now.

My mom taught herself English by watching General Hospital and started a business in the ’70s without having any connections to build a life for us, so I’m always inspired by her. Oprah has always been so important to me too — especially when I learned that she was a survivor of sexual assault as well. In the 1980s and ’90s, there weren’t so many people telling their stories and it was important for me to find role models. She also raised me when my parents were busy running their business. I felt like she was talking to me through the TV.

Interview has been edited for clarity.