The chief of Kefir-maker Lifeway has had a surprising career path. In a chat with Fortune, she talks career tips and causes, and shares secrets of her success.
Julie Smolyansky became CEO of Lifeway Foods in 2002 after her father, the company’s founder, died of a heart attack.
The tragedy all of a sudden made her the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company. Since then Smolyansky has grown Lifeway, which makes yogurt-like kefir, from $12 million in gross sales to $109 million.
Now 39, Smolyansky continues to defy stereotypes of what a typical CEO should look like. She got her nose pierced in 2011. She’s been to more than 35 Pearl Jam concerts. And she has thrown her emphatic support behind causes ranging from teenage homelessness to ending violence against women. Smolyansky, who made her debut on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list in October, spoke to Fortune about how she does it all. What follows is an edited transcript.
Fortune: What has been the lowest moment in your career?
Julie Smolyansky: I feel low anytime I have to deal with any regulatory arm in our government. It can be really frustrating. We had to dump 40,000 units of perfectly safe organic kefir because of a missing piece of paper.
I’ve traveled to Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, and even parts of my hometown where food scarcity and starvation is an issue. It was heartbreaking to throw away perfectly good food when it could have been donated. I fought very hard for almost two months to allow it to be donated to our local food pantry, but the regulatory folks were not interested in exploring ways to turn it into a winning situation—even with the modern technology we have of testing it in a lab to make sure it’s safe for consumption.
Speaking of all that travel, do you have a survival tip for business travel?
Never check baggage. Splurge on the club membership for all the delays you will undoubtedly experience. Carry a scarf for chilly airports or airplanes. Melatonin for international travel—I’m a terrible sleeper, and it helps a lot. If I have a long haul flight I try to build in time for a massage when I get home. The healing power of touch is fascinating to me, and those longer flights are sure to beat the body up. And drink lots of kefir to keep from getting sick!
What about a productivity tip?
I do most of my conference calls outside on the trail. I walk a lot. Sitting is the new smoking. I can burn an extra 100 calories in an hour while doing a call. And I use the Charity Mile app to raise money for Every Mother Counts or Girl Up while I walk.
Stewart Friedman in his book Total Leadership talks about this as “four-way wins.” I think balance is almost impossible these days, but if you try to think of career, family, community, and self as four circles and try to overlap them, you will feel more productive. I have a hard time getting all four overlapping, but I can usually get three.
For example, walking is good for my self, my conference call is good for my career, and my charity mile contribution is good for my community—all in all I feel pretty productive as a result. When the kids were in strollers I would walk with them and then I was operating at optimal four-way winds by adding family. If you are working on things you are passionate about you will naturally be productive.
What sports team do you root for?
My neighborhood team is the Cubs. Plus Kerry and Sarah Wood are my neighbors. Kerry is a former Cubs pitcher, and they are both incredible role models for girls and boys. If the Cubs can cultivate such a great role model like Kerry, then I’m a fan. We need more men like him in sports who are redefining masculinity.
What cause do you care most about?
Ending violence against women. I personally have been touched by violence, and just about every woman I know has been impacted as well. One out of three women will be affected by gender-based violence. I have a sense of urgency to move the needle on these statistics because I want better odds for my daughters and their generation. I recently started my own non-profit, Test400k, to end the backlog of untested rape kits. Our country has 400,000 untested rape kits that have been ignored for over 30 years, and they contain valuable DNA evidence.
I always feel vulnerable in speaking out against it, but every time I do, I feel I’m being true to myself and that I have overcome a personal fear, which is a pretty powerful feeling. I heard Oprah give her “exit interview” with Piers Morgan when she was wrapping up the Oprah show. He asked her what her biggest regret was. She said she wished she did more to end violence against women and children. I thought, if Oprah, who has all the gurus and resources in the world, has this regret, I could learn from it.
I do not want to go down regretting that I didn’t do everything in my power to change the statistics.