JULIE Smolyansky starts every day with a glass of kefir, but then she would as her parents were one of the first people to bring the fermented dairy drink from their native Ukraine to the US in 1986.
It fell to Julie, however, to bring Lifeway kefir to Ireland, she told Feelgood during a visit here last month. When her father Michael died suddenly of a heart attack in 2002 she found herself at the helm of a large company at age 27.
Her brother Edward took on the role of chief financial officer, but she was told there was no way she could ever run a company. That just sharpened her resolve and she became the youngest CEO of a public company in the US. Now she has a staff of more than 300 people and an annual turnover of some $100m (€91m).
“I had to prove it to myself too,” she says, encouraging women of all ages to exploit their skills.
“Our voices are not being heard and our skills are not being used,” she says, adding that in the US alone, women’s buying power amounts to over $14 trillion.
Her own business success is linked not only to making kefir but incorporating the health-giving fermented milk drink into her daily diet.
Julie says its origins can be traced to the Caucasus mountains, between Russia and Georgia, where it was considered a gift from the gods. The people who drank it were said to lead long, healthy lives, some of them reportedly living to well over 100.
If kefir’s origins have something of the myth about them, there is nothing fanciful about its health benefits. Several studies show that kefir is good for digestive health and that it supports the immune system, Julie tells Feelgood.
For instance, one study, published in 2016 in Frontiers in Microbiology, found that kefir provided “a multitude of positive effects”, ranging from improved cholesterol metabolism and wound healing to immune and digestive system benefits. It found that the drink even had potential to alleviate allergies and other diseases.
Julie outlines some further benefits: Kefir is high in protein, which helps make you feel full and so reduces food cravings during the day. The cultured milk product also contains tryptophan which helps to raise the levels of serotonin in the brain.
During a visit to Ireland some years ago, Julie tasted Irish dairy produce and found it so good that she began looking for an Irish partner.
In 2016, Lifeway kefir teamed up with Clóna Dairy in West Cork to bring a range of four probiotic smoothies — original, mango, strawberry, and blueberry — to the Irish market. In a whisper, Julie says she thinks the Irish version tastes even better than the American one.
For the Irish dairy sector, though, it has another benefit, says Tony O’Driscoll, chief executive of Clóna Dairy Products: “Kefir is a great example of how dairy can be at the forefront of the Irish functional food sector with new product innovation.”
In the US, Lifeway is getting ready to launch a dairy-free kefir, responding tothe demand for more plant-basedproducts.
If there is demand in Ireland, thecompany will look into the possibility of launching a similar product here, although its CEO warns against cutting whole food groups from the diet without medical advice.
She says dairy is a vital source of calcium, which is particularly important for the development of strong, healthy bones during the teenage years.
Eating well, she says, helps young people to achieve their goals. And speaking of goals, she has this to say to other female would-be entrepreneurs: “Look at me and others like me. Aim as high as you possibly can. My wish is for girls to feel their own power. We can make great strides for women and create a more equitableworld.”
But remember, adds Julie, always take time out to recharge and to nourish your body with healthy foods.
“There are lots of things we can’t control but we can control how we eat, how weexercise and how we speak to ourselves. We can control those choices of self-care so make sure to make good ones. We are worth it.”