Julie Smolyansky: Lifeway CEO Changing Lives

There is nothing quite like the passion of someone just back from a mission trip to help others living in atrocious circumstances.

It’s uber-inspiring and infectious.

I had the good fortune to talk with the CEO of Skokie-based Lifeway Foods, Julie Smolyansky, just days after she returned from a mission trip to Bangladesh with supermodel, filmmaker and activist Christy Turlington, on behalf of Every Mother Counts.

“The suffering is on such a massive scale that you can’t process it,” Smolyansky declares. Her wide brown eyes flash. “The average age of pregnancy is 15.15!” She exudes indignation at the treatment of females in Bangladesh.

bangladesh“Medical care was once so bad that going to the hospital could be a death sentence,” Smolyansky says. “Fortunately though, new programs like the Fistula Hospitals have brought maternal health rates down 40% in the last 10 years.”

The greatest atrocity she describes is acid violence—throwing acid on a child or woman who says ‘no’ to a man’s proposition. She pulls up a photo of Durjoy, a 4-year-old girl who is an acid violence victim and asks incredulously, “Can you believe this is culturally accepted?”

This atrocity is especially hard for the mother of two daughters—Misha, 1, and Leah, 3. Smolyansky is determined to be part of the solution and outlines obvious first steps. “Plumbing and clean water is key.  Everyone in the world should have clean water!” she declares. “That’s basic. Basic!”

She also believes that each woman needs some skill to earn an income, like baking or sewing. She’s a believer in the microfinance model that supports and empowers such women.

“Loan recipients had brick houses with electricity and plumbing,” says Smolyansky. “Women who used to have two saris, now have six.”

Her dream—Internet access and iPads for all.

“I was really impressed with the use of mobile technology,” she explains. “A handful of village people own mobile phones, so health and development workers are able to send text messages to disseminate health information to the public using this advancement.” This technology has led to a decrease in maternal death.

Smolyansky inherited her big heart and entrepreneurial spirit from her parents, who were Jewish émigrés from Russia. “Mom opened a deli on Devon based on her desire for Russian food. I saw that as a woman you can do it all, which was very empowering.” She continues, “Dad found a 9 to 5 job as an engineer. After 5, he relieved mom at the deli.”

One deli became five delis and her dad quit his day job. Ultimately, he founded Lifeway to produce kefir; probiotic, lactose free, calcium and protein rich smoothies and frozen treats, based on a Russian food tradition. And he lent a hand to anyone in need.

Even as a Niles North High School student, Smolyansky lived compassionately, fundraising for and working at an Evanston battered woman’s shelter. She started a social work career after college, but fell in love with the family business when her dad hired her to do data entry for the company to earn extra money.

“We have a health message. I get letters saying we save people from surgery. That’s huge!” Smolyansky grins. “America counts on us for their bowel movements.”

Smolyansky is proud of her company’s many philanthropic efforts, including a substantial sponsorship of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and a $250,000 donation to help Haiti through UNICEF. But, the trip to Bangladesh, she calls “life changing!”

The trip was only a first step in her Every Mother Counts journey. Lifeway has designated a portion of its Low Fat Blueberry Kefir sales to benefit EMC through the end of the year.

Smolyansky attributes her personal and business success to intuition. She explains, “I keep finding my way to more opportunities that I’m passionate about and a really full life by following my intuition.”  She’s an inspiration for all of us to do the same.

To donate or learn more About Every Mother Counts go to their website: everymothercounts.org

Purchase Low Fat Blueberry Kefir benefiting Every Mother Counts at Whole Foods, Jewel, Dominicks, Fresh Market, Treasure Island and other food retailers.

Follow Smolyansky on Twitter  @JulieSmolyansky

Photos by Josh Estey and courtesy of Julie Smolyansky

Photo captions: Julie Smolansky and her children, Leah, 3, and Misha, 1

Julie Smolansky with Christy Turlington; Erin Thornton, Executive Director for Every Mother Counts;

and Heather Armstrong, a.k.a. “Dooce,” a blogger