Julie Smolyansky

CEO, Lifeway Foods

Imagine taking the reins of a $12 million company — even though you’ve never taken a business class. Sound like a lot of pressure?

Throw in that at age 27, you are the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company. And this isn’t just any company. It’s your father’s, the business he founded after immigrating to the US with just $116.

This was Julie Smolyansky’s story in 2002, the year she became CEO of Lifeway Foods after her father passed away unexpectedly. Fast forward some fourteen years, and Julie has grown Lifeway’s kefir business to more than $137 million.

Julie is keenly aware that being one of the world’s relatively few female CEOs makes her a unique role model, and she strives to fulfill that responsibility every day. She recently founded Test400k, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits in the US and stopping violence against women.

She has also produced three documentaries on pressing social issues: The Homestretch (teen homelessness in Chicago), Honor Diaries (violence against girls in Muslim-majority countries), and The Hunting Ground (sexual assault on university campuses).

Julie shares 5 values she learned as an immigrant that she is applying as a CEO:

1. Hard work. When you move to a new country with only $116, the idea of balance doesn’t exist. You’re working all the time, and sometimes you’ll need to dig deep.

2. Humbleness and Gratitude. Be thankful for the opportunities you encounter. Appreciate how lucky you are when life is going your way, and stay hopeful when it’s not.

3. See opportunity everywhere. Whether it’s encountering a new flavor at dinner or meeting an unlikely business partner, most situations have something to offer.

4. Operate in scarcity. Learn how to do a lot with very little.

5. Foster a strong sense of culture and family. People spend so much of their time in the workplace, and young people in particular want to feel like part of a community.

For more about Lifeway Foods, click here.

Watch more FIVEinSIXTY episodes here.

FIVEinSIXTY is our web series with thought leaders whose stories provide insights and inspiration for the next generation of go getters—our own little brainchild outside the wide variety of videos we produce for our clients.

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