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How Julie Smolyansky of Lifeway Became CEO of a Public Company at 27

At 27 years old, Julie Smolyansky found herself leading a 12 million dollar public company. Her father had died suddenly of a heart attack, and just 24 hours later she was addressing all of her employees as their new CEO. Over the next decade, Julie would go on to grow the company to one of the most recognizable food brands in the world, earning a spot on Fortune Magazine’s ’40 Under 40′. Since then she has launched a non-profit, produced several documentaries, and authored The Kefir Cookbook, sharing her entrepreneurial story and over 100 globally-inspired sweet and savory recipes using Kefir.

On June 11th you can meet the Lifeway team at the Consumer Discovery Show, an incredible event for anyone interested in building powerful connections with some of the world’s most innovative consumer brands. Listeners of our show can get a 20% discount on all tickets to the event by using the code TheMentors20 before June 10th.

Many doubted Julie’s ability to run a public company at such a young age, but her confidence came from having incredible role models in both of her parents.

After emigrating to America, her mother opened a small Russian Deli to support the family. This eventually grew into a larger food distribution business working with Russian stores all over the United States, securing exclusive contracts like the right to distribute a then little known brand called Nutella in America.

Her parents got the idea to bring Kefir to America after visiting a trade show in Germany to source food for their delis. The Russian population in Chicago was growing, and they knew that their would be growing demand for this staple Russian drink.

In our conversation with Julie, we uncover how her parents created their own recipe for the drink, and the steps that they took to turn Lifeway Foods into a public company within only 2 years of inception. We also discuss the importance of having the right mentors in your life, and why a strong network of support contributes more to success than experience.

Show Notes

  • 1:30 Julie took over as CEO at 27 years old and grew revenue 12x since 2002
  • 3:26 Coming from the Soviet Union as refugees in 1976 as the first of only 48 families allowed to settle in Chicago
  • 4:00 Identifying the lack of Eastern European food in the Chicago area
  • 4:30 How Julie's mother opened the first Russian deli in Chicago only after 2 years of being in the country
  • 5:35 How her parents grew their small deli into a large food distributor
  • 6:25 Cutting the first deal with Nutella to import to the United States and distributing exclusively
  • 7:07 Getting the idea for to sell Kefir at a food show in Germany in 1986
  • 7:25 How Julie's parents divided responsibilities with her father as the engineer and her mother as the saleswoman
  • 8:00 Getting a letter from the White House asking for Kefir for Gorbochev's visit to the states
  • 8:44 "Food is recession proof - everyone eats" -Michael Smolyansky
  • 9:21 Why immigrants often have to be incredibly resourceful to survive
  • 11:15 Recognizing that their might be a market for Kefir given the huge volume of Russian immigrants coming to the United States
  • 11:41 Gaining massive media attention after President Regan gave Lifeway Kefir to Gorbachev
  • 11:53 How Michael Smolyansky learned the process for going public to fund the business and keep up with their growing demand
  • 12:00 Writing a business plan and going public after only 2 years
  • 13:10 How growing awareness around healthy eating and a growing Russian community helped propel the business
  • 15:20 How Julie's parents shaped her to be an entrepreneur from a very young age
  • 17:15 "You can't always get everything perfect - sometimes you just have to start"
  • 18:27 How Sergei and Vadim worked on their family business at a young age, just like Julie
  • 18:45 Negotiating with vendors and bankers at 11 years old
  • 20:43 How Julie went from wanting to be a social worker to working with her father on the business
  • 21:00 What was going through her head when her father passed away and she was tasked with taking over the company
  • 21:25 Making the immediate decision to be the CEO and convincing the rest of the company
  • 22:36 How Julie saw the opportunity to have a massive impact on people's lives by helping them make better food choices with Lifeway
  • 23:19 Being relentlessly decisive and gaining support from the organization
  • 23:33 Why selling the business was not an option
  • 23:57 Working 22 hour days and sleeping in the office
  • 24:56 How Julie found her passion in the business even though it took some time to get there. Sometimes you need to have a mindset shift to find your passion, not wait for inspiration to strike
  • 26:01 The unique set of decisions that helped the company grow drastically
  • 27:17 Understanding who the customer is, and investing more into those markets
  • 27:50 The importance of creating a good culture at work for her 320 employees
  • 29:00 How being told that she would not succeed empowered her to persevere
  • 30:40 How her father's confidence in her abilities gave her confidence in herself
  • 32:22 "It's important for any entrepreneur to find a need worth addressing and a problem worth solving"
  • 34:55 How Julie is creating learning opportunities for her children by allowing them to make their own mistakes
  • 38:00 Julie shares her favorite flavor of Kefir, and how a customer's life was changed by their product
  • 40:30 Parting words - "Don't overthink things, go with your gut"
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