Lady Gaga’s Oscar performance is sure to be talked about for years to come. Not because of her talent (though it is astounding), but because, halfway through her Oscar-nominated song, “Till it Happens to You,” the backdrop of the stage opened and more than 50 sexual assault survivors walked onto it.
Each of the people on stage had words of support written on their arms in black marker: “unbreakable,” “survivor,” and “it’s not your fault.” The message was clear and heart-wrenching: We are here. We will not apologize. We will not be silenced.
Among those on the stage was Julie Smolyansky, who is the president and CEO of Lifeway Foods (LWAY). She made history 14 years ago when, at 27 years old, she became the youngest-ever CEO of a public company.
“My heart was pounding so fast,” Smolyansky recalls. “I’ve spoken on stages, to cameras, in front of large rooms of people, but nothing was like this moment,” she says.
“It sounds so amazing and glamorous, but the implications are still a major risk for me,” she explains, referring to the fact that being on stage “let the cat out of the bag” about her experience with sexual violence, something that Smolyansky acknowledges but rarely speaks about.
“I still had to overcome my own fears that I had about it and take that step,” she says of participating in the performance. “But I just kept thinking that to stand up and to be on that stage with her and the impact that it would have for survivors around the world.”
Smolyansky is active in the conversation about sexual violence, and is one of the executive producers of The Hunting Ground, the 2015 documentary about sexual assault on college campuses that Lady Gaga wrote “Till it Happens to You” for; the two connected because of the film.
Smolyansky is also the co-founder of Test400k, a non-profit dedicated to eliminating the backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits in the U.S. and stop violence against women.
“Unfortunately, I’m not unique and the 50 other people on that stage are not unique,” she says. “But I wanted to show that you could come out on the other end of it and show that you could not only survive, but also thrive.”