Michael Smolyansky built Lifeway Foods from the ground up. An inspirational story that saw a man with a crazy dream appear in Time Magazine and receive media attention for all the right reasons. After Ronald Reagen met with Mikhail Gorbachev during the peace talks, he greeted him with a case of  Kefir as an ice-breaker to show how successful immigrants were in the US.

In 1988, Smolyansky became the first Russian immigrant to take a company public long before Google's Sergey Brin. Smolyansky died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 55, on 9 June 2002 after growing the business to a $12 million valuation.

His daughter Julie Smolyansky then instantly became the youngest female CEO of a publicly held firm when she took over Lifeway Foods at age 27.  

During this incredibly difficult time, Julie was instantly faced with a plummeting stock after investors feared that a young woman wasn't ready to run a public company. While still coming to terms with the loss of her father, throwing herself into work to prove the naysayers wrong appeared to be the big driver she needed to succeed.

Julie had never taken a single business class in school and learned on the job. Arming herself with an innovative product development and marketing strategy she went on to boost annual revenues to over $150 million. Julie also went on to be named as one of Fortune's 55 most influential women on Twitter and Fast Company's Most Creative People In Business.

Now celebrating 30 years in business, Lifeway has become known for being one of the first to bring the probiotic craze to your grocery store isle. Their protein rich drink, Kefir, is guzzled by everyone from toddlers to body builders, and its popularity has made them $150 million company traded on the NASDAQ. 

To completely understand the benefits of probiotic and cultured snacks, Julie is keen to enlist the help of scientists and medical professionals. Her thirst for knowledge involves making the most of any tools that technology and innovation can offer.

During the early days of Zuckerberg's social network, Julie spotted an opportunity. Advisors thought she was crazy starting a Facebook page to build a community to share stories. Once again, trusting her instinct proved to be a shrewd move.

Ancient Kefir has been made for over 2,000 years. According to historical reports Genghis Khan and Marco Polo used to drink it and Cleopatra bathed in it. Kefir success was initially built on stories spreading by word of mouth from village to village. We are now all connected via technology and social media. But, we are sharing the same stories, only through different channels.

After speaking with Julie, I learned that she was not motivated by revenue or by selling more units. A passion for the Kefir product, family business and entrepreneurship shines through with boundless energy. 

Lifeway describes Kefir as the champagne of dairy. With the White House recently announcing the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative, it seems that science is finally catching up with 2,000 years of storytelling. 

The bigger story is how the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company grew a family business from $12 to $150 Million.

On my podcast, I chat with Julie Smolyansky in more detail about how she is using both technology and innovation to improve products at Lifeway Foods. An inspirational story about family, opportunity, entrepreneurship, and the American Dream.


 

Published on: Jul 26, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.