Dream Job: Julie Smolyansky and The Recessance|
Julie Smolyansky and The Recessance
The CEO of Lifeway Foods, the makers of Kefir, waxes eloquent on the importance of work ethic, standing up for what you believe in, and bringing babies into the office
The message that Yahoo’s appointment of Marissa Mayer to head the company as a pregnant woman planning to take maternity leave is a big one: Women, start your engines.
You’re a powerful woman, but you don’t work in tech. How is your situation different from Marissa Mayer’s? How is it the same?
In terms of career and motherhood, it’s one thing to be an executive woman, and a totally different thing to be at Walmart, or flipping burgers. The leverage you have over your hours and flexibility is different. There aren’t that many CEOs that have been pregnant while negotiating their appointment.
When my father passed away ten years ago, I had been working side-by-side with him for about five years. I left grad school (I was planning on being a clinical psychologist) after my first year and absolutely fell in love with everything he was doing. I was 22 when I came to work for him (I graduated college a year early). I worked my tail off from the time I was 22 until-well, it hasn’t stopped. But I had been working since I was 14. I don’t remember a week in my life where I didn’t work. Not even summer camp-I taught aerobics, I managed the concession stand at the pool, babysat, and worked in a restaurant. I always worked.
We were Russian immigrants-we came over when I was 1 year old, in 1976. My parents had $116 in their pockets when they arrived. In 1978 my mother opened a delicatessen that catered to the exploding Russian population in Chicago. Even today, our biggest markets are in Chicago and in Brighton Beach. Many of the best ideas Lifeway developed came from my mother-she was always working, even though she had no language and learned English from watching soap operas. When she started in America, she started as a hairwasher. When she learned a little English, she became a manicurist. When she started speaking in phrases, she opened the deli. So I watched my parents’ blue collar jobs-and watched my mother observe market needs that she could address, and go after that market need. She owned 5 delicatessens over the course of her career, and became a big international distributor. She took on a lot of risk, and it always worked out for her.
My father was a 9-to-5 engineer who would come take over the deli when my mother went to pick us up in the afternoons. Many afternoons, we’d go play at her warehouse. That was our playground. The idea of feeling like a victim, and not feeling empowered, to me is incomprehensible. We thought we had a dream life, even though our parents were still building up their wealth long into our teenage years.
Lifeway started in 1985, and it’s been ten years since I took over. I was the youngest CEO of a publicly trade company at that time (27). My parents’ friends flocked towards my father near the time of his death and said, “she is too young to run a business– she can’t run your company.” It pissed me off. They came to the US and started businesses with no experience-why did they doubt my ability?
I’ve taken the $12 million to $100 million in the decade I’ve been CEO. We’ve gone from 70 people to 340. Our biggest growth, in fact, was during the Recession-I took the downturn as an opportunity to invest in the business when everyone else was letting people go. I hired at discount prices and took advantage of the availability of highly qualified people from incredible backgrounds. I pushed through.
During the Recession, I invested more in advertising and marketing, because no one was doing that. We were never leveraged. We have almost no debt. So we could afford to do that, financially. Then, of course, because of the situation, people ended up in the grocery store more often when they cut back on their restaurant budget. So we benefited from that. At the end of the day, people still need to eat.
Was your success a feature of your father’s education or your mother’s entrepreneurial leanings?
It’s a little of both. My father taught me a strong work ethic, and how to problem-solve. To come from Russia to America-life in Russia isn’t easy. You have to work your connections. Be-what’s the word-savvy in the your approach to the forces in the market.
And I pass those traits on to my little girls. My 4 year old told me the other day, “When I grow up, I want to be a mommy, a ballerina, and the President.”
You took over Lifeway from your father. Was this your first choice? Were you continuing the family business- and are you planning to raise your children to do the same?
I gave birth to my first child during the Recession. It was a crazy time to be a leader. I watched the news thinking, “Is this Armageddon?” But I kind of had a plan. When I decided that I wanted to have kids, I did a few things proactively: I hired an assistant (she’s still with me), and I also found that I became more protective of my time. That would have happened anyway, with the growth of the company, but having children made me even more aware of that. Having children made me think “Do I want to take on a new passion?” every time I considered taking on additional responsibility.
My husband, when we had kids, went from 6 days a week to 3 days a week at his family jewelry business. He eventually moved to working from home full-time. But it helped him find his passion, too-because he didn’t feel like he had to do 6 days a week.
Our views on how to divvy time between us in childcare have evolved over time-for instance, he handles putting the kids to bed because it takes an hour and a half, and I still need to work in the evenings.
There’s financial proof that women who run companies have a better ROI. Their stock prices increase more so than in female-free boarded companies. That’s one of the reasons why I’m passionate about supporting women. I want to see more women at the top, even if it’s a tough balance. I still feel the guilt when I’m with my kids and have work to do. But a lot of the work that I do, I do because I love. I love my job. I love my career. And the whole family helps. At the end of the day, I’m putting healthy food into the system. It’s kind of an extension of motherly intuition [to run Lifeway Foods] that I want to feed all the kids, and everyone, healthy food.
I also believe that the best team is one that’s diverse. Women and men have different skill sets, and the combination of the two in a team is what’s really exciting and game changing-it’s where we can create innovation. It’s also a matter of national economic security. We need game changing innovation. We need females in engineering and tech to think differently than men do. How much of those industries are missing because they don’t have a woman’s touch?
On the reverse side, it’s great for men to feel liberated-that men no longer have to be the breadwinner. How nice is it to have homes that include male role models? We’re carving out new societal models of what fatherhood can look like. In the modern economy, we favor collaboration and networking and sharing-those are great skillsets that women have. Women create most of the content for social media. It’s very natural for us to share. We tweet more. We Facebook more. That’s a natural place for us, and that’s what companies need for healthy growth.
Both my partner and I feel that we kind of missed our childhoods with our parents-because our parents were always working. There was no balance. I saw my dad a few hours a month. I got to know my dad by going to work for him. We both agree that it’s lucky that we can spend time at home. I don’t even go into the office much anymore-I travel, have meetings in the city, and I work from home. But I did bring my babies into work with me for the first month. After two or three weeks of maternity leave, I started coming into the office a few times a week. It got hard when they learned to crawl. But I didn’t need 24/7 with my babies. If you want to take three months, or never want to go back-that’s fine. But it wasn’t for me. For me, my children inspired new products for Lifeway.
Did your workforce doubt you when you started bringing your babies to work?
My father died on a Sunday night, and on Monday morning, I was at work. Having a baby was nothing in comparison. And my team saw that-that I’m dedicated and passionate about my career, and that my babies would only add to that rather than detracting from it. I had a few crises during work about my children, but I steered the ship. I didn’t crumble. And I knew that we’d be able to get through pretty much anything.
I have respect for women who have to clock in, and who aren’t the boss. It isn’t possible for everyone to work from home. But I will say that you can look at childbirth as an opportunity to move into an area where you can work from home. Maybe you love to knit booties, and you can go from the checkout line at Walmart to having your own online business. You can find what you’re really interested in and make it work from you. You can wake up and realize “I’m not handcuffed to this.” You can do something else. The Recession has brought about an emergence, a Renaissance-and moms have been a huge part.
There seem to be a lot of young women flocking to Chicago right now. Is it a friendly city for Gen Y women? What industries are strongest?
It’s an awesome city, and for a lot of reasons. We’re super philanthropic-and one of the most civic cities out there. We’re a huge foodie town, so anyone who’s in food, restaurants, anything like that-it’s a great place. But in tech, people are saying we’re the second Silicon Valley-we’ve got Groupon, great tech incubators, and a vivid startup environment. It makes me wish I knew more about tech. There’s a great social scene (Midwesterners are really kind), and the Mayor is looking for ways to grow the city, including bringing in women.
Gen Y women are closing the pay gap – they’re already at 91 cents to the dollar for women under 30. And that kind of growth is going to be great for Chicago.
You serve on the board of the Anti-Defamation League. How does your approach to Lifeway differ from a Chick-Fil-A type?
That’s a tough one. I’ve treaded lightly in terms of not pushing my political message for the company, because that’s not what it’s there for. But we as a society are moving towards openness and diversity. I don’t understand how a company would want to alienate anybody today. We take everybody’s dollars. I don’t understand how you could fight for hate; how you could stand for refusing to include people. Those principles don’t jive with me. We supported Gay Pride, the Civil Union bill in Illinois. My partner and I aren’t married, partly because we want to stand with those who are not able to get married.
We have a lot of opinions in this country-and if you’re from outside big towns, things seem a little different. It’s a balancing act. Our customers are nationwide. We don’t want to piss anybody off. On the business side, though, we tread lightly in politics.