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Lifeway Foods CEO, a former Ukrainian refugee, found her ‘greater purpose’ leading relief effort

“It’s hard to sleep right now when so much is happening, but I watched my parents escape a crisis and land on their feet," said Julie Smolyansky. "It just feels like I have to do this. It’s my obligation in my DNA."

When the millions of Ukrainian refugees beginning new lives in other countries have a chance to catch their breath, Lifeway Foods CEO Julie Smolyansky has a hunch about one of the first things they’ll want: a taste of home.

Infant Julie with her parents, Ludmila and Michael, in Kyiv in 1976.
Infant Julie with her parents, Ludmila and Michael, in Kyiv in 1976.Julie Smolyansky

Julie's family has a deep emotional connection to that trauma, and their immigrant story is one that shapes everything about her approach to business and life. When she was just an infant in 1976, she told TODAY Food, “through a small slit in the Iron Curtain,” she and her parents defected in the middle of the night from what was then the Soviet Union. “Even family members could be arrested if they knew that we were leaving, so no one knew. Both my parents hated life in the Soviet Union. My dad always told me he made a promise that he would do everything in his power to get me out of that country.”

Julie as a young refugee.
Julie as a young refugee.Julie Smolyansky

Researching where to go, Julie's father, Michael, an engineer, was enchanted by American ideals. “He loved this idea of checks and balances, the right to speak and protest, freedom of the press, access to information, the right to vote. These were all values that he held dearly in his heart even though he could not live them or practice them,” said Julie.

These days, Julie runs a company with annual revenue that’s reached as high as $120 million. Their signature product is kefir, a fermented probiotic drink that has roots in Eastern Europe. But as a former refugee herself, she has been profoundly affected by the current plight of Ukrainians.

Julie and the Lifeway team at Nasdaq.
Julie and the Lifeway team at Nasdaq.Kelsey Ayres / Nasdaq

'Nobody wants to leave home unless home is the mouth of a shark.'

“Nobody wants to leave home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” she said. “They have a long journey ahead of them, but it is inspiring to see the world rise up and all of us unite for these values — to say, ‘This is not OK.’ I cannot believe in 2022, we’re witnessing bombs falling down on children’s homes and hospitals. It’s traumatizing, it’s surreal. And it has to be stopped. We had hopes for peace and democracy in Ukraine, but this is one man’s war. The people of Russia do not want war. So it is very important that brave Russian people stand up to him. I hope and pray for their courage and bravery, because there really are two countries that are being held hostage over this.”

Channeling what she calls her “warrior spirit,” Julie jumped into action as soon as Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Lifeway immediately sent cases of kefir to the border for refugees.

“I feel it is my obligation to be a voice for those who may not have one and provide light in such a dark time,” she said. In her hometown of Chicago, Julie gathered the city’s top chefs for a fundraiser that raised over half a million dollars for World Central Kitchen. “No one said no, not a single no. Everyone has just rolled up their sleeves,” she said. “When the American people come together, we do great things. I’m really proud to be an American and Ukrainian. I have never seen our city, country or world so unified as we are today. It is a beacon of hope that in this darkness we can counter that hate and evil with a hundred times more light and love.”

Chefs Cook For Ukraine
Julie, in symbolic yellow, at Chicago’s Navy Pier with 73 chefs and myriad volunteers who helped raise over $600,000 for critical humanitarian aid for Ukraine.Collin Pierson Photography

'My parents cried the first time they walked into a grocery store.'

The Smolyansky family story is one of survival and success against all odds. Leaving Ukraine, they gave up their passports at the border and were sent to live as exiles in Rome on their way to the U.S. Their time in Italy would be brief but formative — especially when it came to their palates. Like just about anyone who’s ever been to Italy, they fell in love with gelato and Nutella. Though she was just a baby, Julie developed a pretty decent hustle: "People thought we were poor refugees and would give me gelato for free," she said.

After three months in Rome, the Smolyanskys landed in Skokie, Illinois, with $100 to their name and little in the way of language help. Julie's mother, Ludmila, seeing signs for “hot dogs” everywhere, was appalled by the translation. “She was like, you brought me to a country where they eat dogs served hot?” Smolyansky recalled, laughing. 

The culture shock was profound. “My parents cried the first time they walked into a grocery store,” Julie said. “They couldn’t believe all this food that they didn’t have in the Soviet Union. At home they stood in line all day to get a chicken and by the end of the day there might be no more chicken. So because of the scarcity they grew up with, food was absolutely central to their lives.”

'Food is such a great platform. It unites us.'

Craving a taste of the familiar in their new country, Ludmila got to work opening a Russian-Ukrainian deli that quickly became a “town central” for all the immigrants coming through. “Thousands of people leaving the Soviet Union in a mass exodus came through my parents’ doors,” said Julie. If you were new in town, you were directed to find them, and they could tell you how to get what you needed, whether that was pierogi or a car. According to family lore, thinking that many would have taken the same path they had through Italy, Ludmila was the first person to bring Nutella into the U.S. “Food is such a great platform,” Julie said. “It unites us. Through the sharing of these recipes, I think there’s an incredible amount of culinary diplomacy that’s happening.”

With the success of the deli, the Smolyanskys began traveling around the world to food shows, importing Eastern European food and selling it anywhere that fellow refugees were settling. A taste of kefir brought Michael pangs of both hunger and nostalgia. “My father thought, 'I haven’t had this since we left Kyiv.' He realized America has everything but it doesn’t have kefir. My mom said, 'Well, you’re an engineer, why don’t you build the machinery and I’ll sell it through my distribution network?' It was like lightning struck.”

Michael Smolyansky wanted to introduce his beloved kefir to people across the globe.
Michael Smolyansky wanted to introduce his beloved kefir to people across the globe.Julie Smolyansky

Julie is also happy to evangelize when it comes to kefir. “Kefir is a 2,000-year-old staple that was passed down generation to generation," she said. "For my ancestors, a typical lunch was a quart of kefir and a loaf of bread, and while it was humble, there were a lot of benefits to this ancient healing beverage.” In 1908, Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff even received a Nobel Prize for his pioneering research on immunity that set off a sour milk and yogurt craze around the world.

'(My father) was living the American dream making a staple from the former Soviet Union.'

Home in Skokie, Michael was able to get his hands on some kefir cultures and start making it in the family’s basement, delivering it to stores a few bottles at a time. He founded Lifeway in 1986, when, Julie said, there was “a major fascination with all things Soviet.” The company grew so fast that when it was suggested to him that he should take it public, he didn’t know what that meant. “In 1988, he became the first Soviet immigrant to take a company public,” Julie said, proudly. “He was living the American dream making a staple from the former Soviet Union. Reagan even brought a couple of bottles of Lifeway to Moscow to share with Gorbachev,” essentially to boast about what people were capable of doing when they came to America. “Now, here we are again: The American people are fascinated by what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, and my father was able to share his story and what the Soviet Union was about and why he held life in America so dear.”

A letter to the Smolyanskys from then-president Ronald Reagan in 1988.
A letter to the Smolyanskys from then-president Ronald Reagan in 1988.Julie Smolyansky

When Michael died suddenly in 2002, Julie became the youngest female CEO of a publicly-traded company. Overnight, the family’s legacy became her responsibility. “My father wanted every American to have a bottle of kefir in their refrigerator,” she said, a dream she is still hard at work on.

Julie with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, in 2013.
Julie with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, in 2013.Julie Smolyansky

As an immune-boosting product, it has been in particular demand during the pandemic. The Smolyanskys have seen scientific research continue to back up what Julie says her ancestors knew intuitively: "That the gut can heal, and there’s a huge mind-gut connection." Worried that COVID-19 closures would force them to stop production, the Smolyanskys decided to make as much kefir as they could. Fearing a shutdown, Julie said she even learned how to operate a forklift, ultimately donating 300,000 servings to healthcare workers when they needed it most. "This idea of servant leadership is incredibly important to me," she said. "Leading our team, working side by side with my essential workers, is one of the greatest honors of my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t try to repay my debt to this country. And I’m proud to give back."

The Lifeway Foods team at Expo West earlier this year.
The Lifeway Foods team at Expo West earlier this year.Lifeway

Despite everything that they have been through and all their success, the Smolyansky family continues to experience its share of struggles and conflict. In February, Julie’s brother, Edward, and Ludmila filed with the SEC to remove her as CEO. “We are currently in a proxy contest to replace the board,” Edward, who says he was running the company behind the scenes for 20 years as COO, told TODAY, “nominating three other people to the board for this year’s annual meeting to effect the sale of the company, which is in the best interest of the shareholders," he explained. "We feel that the current CEO (Julie) has not performed up to the standards of the industry since 2014.” Ludmila added, “It’s so hard for me to see this … Not only because this happened between two siblings but also between me and Julie."

Family feud notwithstanding, Julie remains confident in what she sees as her calling. “It’s a process that we’re in. The independent directors and management stand with me, so it’s unfortunate about the family, but it is what it is. For me, the legacy of my father and Lifeway Foods is most important. He always brought me to every board meeting … (even when I was a teenager) he saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself. In these moments I can reach into knowing that my father wanted me to carry this on.”

Father-daughter duo Michael and Julie Smolyansky.
Father-daughter duo Michael and Julie Smolyansky. Julie Smolyansky

'It just feels like I have to do this. It’s my obligation in my DNA.'

In times of trouble, whether it’s personal, familial or political, food is a comfort and having something that reminds you of your roots brings people solace. Julie has jumped into efforts to collect food in Europe that can easily be sent over the border to Ukraine, securing donations from major companies along the way.

“It’s hard to sleep right now when so much is happening, but I watched my parents escape a crisis and land on their feet. It just feels like I have to do this. It’s my obligation in my DNA. The people who are escaping right now are undergoing an incredible amount of trauma and stress and I just want them to know that they’re not alone, they are being supported by millions of people around the world trying to make sure that their landing is a soft one.”

Even Julie's young daughters are organizing in their own way, hosting bake sales and fundraisers. Grateful for their luck in America through three generations now, the Smolyansky family has prioritized paying it forward. “While I was being born in Kyiv, there were Americans marching and protesting and working to free us, and today that’s my job. I have the freedom of speech, and I am so connected, what’s the point of all this if not to help the people now in Ukraine?

"It’s kind of my calling to be here. It’s a greater purpose than I can even articulate. It’s very personal to me and I think it should be personal to everyone regardless of whether they have ties to the region or not. We should see this assault on all of us.”

EDITOR’S NOTE (April 15, 2022, 1:32 p.m. ET): This article has been updated with comments from Edward and Ludmila Smolyansky.