Julie Smolyansky: CEO Against All Odds


Lori Cornmesser

Julie Smolyansky

Forbes recently spoke with Julie Smolyansky, the CEO of Lifeway, about being a woman on top of a business, and the challenges still facing women who want to pursue leadership roles. Smolyansky took over the business when her father, who started the company in 1986, abruptly died of a heart attack at the age of 55 years old. At 27, Julie had to step up and take her father’s place and there were many who doubted her ability, both for you relative in experience and for her gender.

“The day that he died, my dad’s best friend said, ‘oh, sell your stock—there’s no way this girl can run a company,” Smolyansky recalls. This criticism was emblematic of stockholder response to her taking the reigns, with many selling off their stock. Today, Lifeway stocks are up 785% from the day she took over, proving once and for all that ideas and the ability to lead are what matters in business, not gender.

Smolyansky believes that what happened to her when she came in as CEO is what is still happening in the culture today to women in leadership positions. She points to Matt Lauer’s interview with Mary Barra, CEO of GM, in which he asked about doing her job affecting her ability to be a good mother. “No one ever asks a man whether they can run a company and be a father,” says Smolyansky. For a reporter to ask a women in power a question like that underscores the attitudes that still exist concerning women in power today, Smolyansky believes.

She believes that there is much the school systems need to instill leadership skills in young people, especially young women. However, she thinks that there is much that girls can do to get themselves ready for the leadership challenges of tomorrow by taking on everyday organizational roles. Something as simple as organizing a school dance can give a young person a glimpse into what it takes to be a leader. Also, Smolyansky emphasis learning to speak in public.

“People are terrified of it and I think that’s one of the things that keep people from leading,” Smolyansky says.

Read the whole article at Forbes.

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