$100 to $100 Million: Julie Smolyansky

Casey Gordon | September 22, 2016

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 with your family 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. This is obviously not the way most entrepreneurs come into their first big leadership role, and to say the learning curve Julie faced was steep is like saying Mount Everest is pretty tall. (How many sleepless nights learning the ins and outs of food and business legislation could you handle?)

Fast forward some fourteen years, and Julie has grown Lifeway’s kefir business to more than $137 million. In the process, Julie has been named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40, Fortune’s 55 most influential women on Twitter, and Fast Company’s Most Creative People In Business 1000. She serves on the United Nations Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council and is a member of the 2015 class of the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum.

Julie has always been keenly aware of the fact that being one of the world’s relatively few woman CEOs makes her a unique role model, and she strives to fulfill that responsibility every day. Perhaps her most notable achievement in this regard is Test400k, her recently founded 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 Smolyansky is clearly an entrepreneurial and philanthropic powerhouse, and she’s only getting started. We’d say we don’t think her story can get any more inspiring, but we know it wouldn’t take long for Julie to prove us wrong.

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.

FIVEinSIXTY is our interview series with leading CEOs, founders, and other executives about building amazing company culture, designing creative offices, and creating compelling employer brands.

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