Succession Made Her a CEO, Tragedy Made Her a Leader

In 2002, 27-year-old Julie Smolyansky became the youngest-ever CEO of a public company when her father died suddenly, leaving her in charge at Lifeway, the Chicago-based dairy company he’d founded. Today, Lifeway specializes in the probiotic beverage known as kefir, a creamy, tart, fermented drink similar to yogurt. Because some studies have found kefir to offer immunity-boosting benefits, interest in the product has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic. To handle increased demand and motivate her team, Smolyansky has integrated herself in every department of her company–even learning to drive a forklift–while also finding time to organize large-scale donations and volunteer. Her experience assuming the reins amid tragedy made her the leader the moment demanded. –As told to Kevin J. Ryan

I remember the historic snowstorm of 1979 in Chicago. My parents owned a deli, and within hours of its being announced, all of the toilet paper, milk, bread, eggs, and dairy were gone from the shelves. My father taught me to be prepared for things like that. Now, during a crisis, I feel like I’m in my element.

Our first indication that something was shifting was when we started seeing surges in demand overseas, including a 400 percent increase in the U.K. Then, we were in Los Angeles the first week in March to prepare for the Natural Products Expo, the largest convention for organic and natural foods in the country. I did a few speaking engagements in the days leading up to the Expo, and as I came offstage at one of them, the news broke that the event was being canceled. Our booth was already set up. Our team was there–we were ready to go. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe the amount of money that was just burned. 

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