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. 

My cortisol jumped, and I went right into crisis mode. We deployed our emergency response plan for a pandemic, which we'd developed along with other emergency plans after September 11. I said, "Let's build seven weeks of inventory"--we normally have three days' worth on hand--"and create a stockpile in case our team gets sick or is afraid to come in." I figured it'd be a lot easier to have temporary staff move finished goods than to try to do production.

I've done almost every part of the business before, but I'd never used the forklift, so I had the team teach me how to use it just in case I needed to move product myself. Thankfully, it didn't come to that.

Our early action has allowed us to donate more than 80,000 bottles of kefir since the pandemic began. Wrigley Field has been transformed to Chicago's Covid hunger response center. Going there to make donations and deliveries alongside our first lady, Mayor Lightfoot's wife, Amy, has been sobering. Where there are usually lines to see Cubs games and concerts, now it's families with parents who have lost their jobs. For many, it's their first time visiting a food pantry. It's really heartbreaking. To fight this pandemic is, in many ways, also to fight inequality. In Chicago and many other urban centers, African Americans are dying from the virus at disproportionate rates.

For us, as a company, this response has been about pivoting, adapting. In the past, so much of our marketing and events have been grassroots activations. We don't have Pepsi dollars for marketing, but we're nimble. So we said, "If everyone's home, how can we bring those activations to life through people's phones?" We've tapped our existing partners and other companies we have relationships with. Every day on Instagram, we've been doing yoga, tarot card readings, meditation, cooking classes--anything that helps people feel less isolated and alone. It's been helpful for me, personally, and I know it's been helpful for our community.

Domestic violence surges in times of recession, and now you have a lockdown on top of that. I was a crisis counselor before I came to work for my father at Lifeway. So I've been volunteering with local organizations, and I recorded a PSA for Rainn [the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network]. There is going to be long-term trauma that happens as a result of this crisis, and we need people to know that there are resources for them to get help even now. I'm an executive producer for On the Record, a documentary that started streaming in May about the sexual assault allegations against Russell Simmons. We want to continue to give a voice to women of color, who have so many extra challenges when they come forward.

I definitely feel like I have my purpose right now--to be leading during this time. I've spent a lot of days in the plants alongside our workers since this began. I wanted them to hear from me how much we appreciate them. We gave them gift cards so they were able to get their groceries without having to worry. We've provided antibody testing, and, for those who've had Covid-19, we'll be offering the opportunity to do plasma donations.

The humanitarian response to this has been really inspirational. It goes to show that love will always win. There are so many brave people who are willing, even in crisis, to put their own lives at risk to get the job done, to make sure that everyone gets fed. I think a lot of people are now realizing just how essential our essential workers are.