Julie Smolyansky brings kefir to the masses

You've probably seen kefir on your grocery store shelf and wondered, "What the heck is that?" An impressive 12 strains of live and active cultures (aka probiotics), protein and calcium make tart kefir a go-to food for athletes. As part of espnW's Power Players series, which celebrates women in the sports business, we caught up with Julie Smolyansky, 36, CEO of Lifeway Foods, maker of the uber-popular probiotic drink, just days after she ran the Fleet Feet Sports Soldier Field 10-Mile race in her hometown of Chicago.

espnW: How did you find out this was your calling?

Julie Smolyansky: My family emigrated from Russia when I was 1 -- kefir is to Russians what yogurt is to Americans. It's dairy, but it's tart and tangy, not sweet. And it has way more healthy bacteria than yogurt. My father started our company. After college, I worked for him part time while pursuing a clinical psychology degree. In 2002, my dad had a sudden heart attack and passed away. I stepped in as CEO, making me the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company in the country.

espnW: Your company is an official sponsor of the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley Field now sells frozen kefir. Was it hard to convince them to feature a healthy option?

JS: It definitely took a little convincing, but I think they realized there is a market for healthy options at the ballpark. Hot dogs, nachos, polish sausages are OK in moderation, but fans want options. The Cubs do, too -- they asked us to install a self-serve Starfruit [Lifeway's frozen kefir] machine in their clubhouse.

espnW: What is the toughest race you've ever run?

JS: Out of the four marathons I've run, the 2003 Madison marathon was definitely the hardest. I had awful GI issues and needed to stop about five times. I crossed the finish line weak and pale -- but I crossed it. It's all about overcoming challenges. I feel like that's symbolic of how I run my business, too. When I took control in 2002, investors panicked at the thought of a young woman taking the reigns and NASDAQ actually halted trading. But we kept at it, and just last month, NASDAQ invited me to ring the closing bell.

espnW: Why are probiotics a smart choice for athletes?

JS: Probiotics boost your immune system, which is especially important for endurance athletes whose bodies and minds get stressed by intense workouts. Kefir also has protein for muscle repair and it is lactose- and gluten-free, so it won't upset a sensitive stomach…which, as I mentioned before, is not something you want to deal with during a big athletic event. We sponsor lots of races, like the Chicago's Shamrock Shuffle and this fall's Miami Beach Halloween Half Marathon, and we hand out kefir at the finish line. Runners love it. Even Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg -- the swimmer -- drinks it, and I know parents buy it for their kids' Little League teams.

espnW: For your company's 25th anniversary, you're donating $25,000 to help fund local school programs to encourage healthier food options. Why is this issue near to your heart?

JS: I've got two young daughters and am appalled at the food programs in public school systems. It's all fried junk -- tater tots, burgers, pizza. Kids deserve more wholesome foods like hummus, salads, even global options like California rolls. But quality food costs money.

espnW: How do you have time to work fitness into your life and what do you do for a workout?

JS: Making time for exercise as a working mom can be a huge source of guilt: You've been away all day, do you really want to spend another hour apart while you hit the gym? It's all about working it into your lifestyle. I plan fun activities with my girls, like running 10Ks with our jogging stroller, taking long family walks or hitching them up to my bike and taking a ride. They weigh 50 pounds combined, so I work up a nice sweat! Plus, I'm teaching my girls that it's important to be fit, to take time for yourself.

espnW: What would you like to see transpire in women's sports?

JS: It's been almost 40 years since Title IX, and we need to continue focusing attention on women's sports. Girls who participate in sports learn key values like teamwork, goal-setting, determination, how to deal with disappointment. Those are important skills that translate to the business world.

espnW: What's next for you? What goals do you hope to achieve?

JS: I'm heading to Bangladesh in June with [supermodel] Christy Turlington Burns as part of her Every Mother Counts campaign. We'll visit maternal health clinics and brainstorm ways to improve the lives of mothers and children in Third World nations. I'd like to run another marathon this year and have one more baby. My dream is to write a book. And I want to help women eat to fuel themselves with delicious, functional, wholesome food, rather than constantly depriving themselves.