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Lifeway Foods CEO Preps for the Post-Greek Yogurt Boom

I started my career in social services. I was an in-home family counselor in Chicago working with kids who had been taken out of their homes. I had worked in some really tough neighborhoods and navigated that terrain. I had also been a crisis counselor for a sexual assault community group here in Chicago, a rape victim advocate. I honestly think I got a lot of my crisis-management skills [from these experiences], which really came in handy when I had to jump in and lead Lifeway overnight.

One thing that I really relate to -- and I think that my dad even saw was that he had a hard time relating to his path of the consumer market -- was young mothers and women. He was a Russian man with a thick Russian accent, so when they heard the message from him, it was a little different. When they hear it from a young woman who's kind of faced with the same challenges that they are -- balancing family life and career in many cases or just trying to put healthy foods on the table -- I will not put anything out into the marketplace that I wouldn't give my own children. I think that's kind of the dominating force with how we think about innovation and looking at new products that we're going to develop.

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What lessons did you have to learn right away when you stepped into this position?

Smolyansky: It's really easy to be overwhelmed by a task of running a company or what that even means or looks like. I took it day by day. I managed one issue at a time. I made sure that my team was on board and I collectively brought them all in together and made sure that they felt comfortable with my leadership. I don't know how comfortable they were, but they all stayed on when they could have decided to jump ship.

What do you think is the hardest part about running a public company, especially as you are still young, relatively speaking?

Smolyansky: The biggest challenge right now is just dealing with all the regulatory issues. Unfortunately, a big part of the day is managing regulatory issues as it relates to stocks. It's definitely gotten harder to do it. It's certainly helped us be a stronger, more efficient company, that's really focused on continuing growth all the time.
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