Interview: Producer & CEO Julie Smolyansky, 2017 Women in Film Chicago Focus Awards Honoree

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CHICAGO – One of the signature events for Women in Film Chicago (WIFC) is their annual Focus Awards, which will take place on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017 (for more details and ticket purchasing information, click here). The WIFC will honor four notable women who influence Chicago-area film production, including actress Julia Sweeney, producer/activist Mary Morten, director of photography Tari Segal and CEO (of Lifeway Foods, Inc.) and film producer Julie Smolyansky.

In anticipation of the event, got the opportunity to interview Ms. Smolyansky. In 2002, she became CEO of Lifeway Foods, which was founded in 1976 by her father, Michael. At the age of 27, she became the youngest female CEO in history to run a publicly traded company. She has since bolstered the company’s signature Kefir yogurt line, and has increased revenues with an expanded distribution network that includes the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain. She is also a film producer of note, guiding the documentaries “The Homestretch,” “Honor Diaries” and last year’s Oscar-nominated film “The Hunting Ground.”

Julie Smolyansky, Film Producer and CEO of Lifeway Foods, Inc.
Photo credit: talked to Julie Smolyansky via phone on the eve of the Focus Awards. She talked about the challenges of taking over a business at a young age, and her commitment to producing films that spotlight women’s issues. What does being a Focus Award honoree from Women in Film Chicago mean to you, in the context of being a film producer and advocate for women in Chicago and beyond?

Julie Smolyansky: I think, essentially, it means I have an opportunity to give a voice to those who have no voice. Even though film production wasn’t a bucket list item for my life, what I have been passionate about is creating change and impacting society – especially bringing conversations forward on formerly taboo subjects.

I’ve been a social justice advocate all my life, becoming an activist for women and human rights even in high school, and found ways to weave it in to my later for-profit career. The first film I got involved in was [model and activist] Christy Turlington’s “No Woman, No Cry” [2010], which was about the impact of maternal health around the world. It brought this important issue to light, and even though I wasn’t in a credit position, I helped her find ways to screen it. How did that expose you to the power of film?

Smolyansky: I saw that it was a tool to have very difficult conversations, and that’s what hooked me. That’s how it started, and now I’m three films into it as producer, which now makes me a filmmaker, which I never thought I’d be. What is exciting today is that with technology filmmaking has been democratized, and so many more people have access to making a film. In your role as film producer, you exec produced the 2016 Oscar nominated documentary ‘The Hunting Ground,’ which shined a spotlight on rape crimes and their cover-ups on U.S. college campuses. How do you think the influence of your film changed the conversation about this heinous situation?

Smolyansky: I’m proud of that film, and it was a labor of love. I’m also proud of the survivors who chose to come forward so bravely, because it has really changed the culture and conversation. When I appeared on stage with Lady Gaga [who wrote and performed a song for the film] and 50 survivors, it was an iconic moment. Within 10 minutes, we got social media messages from China, that they were watching this and having the same conversations about sexual assault, and the message within the film kept traveling throughout the world.

This was really important to me, because I’d spent practically my whole life pushing back against society and the rape culture within it. This film changed laws and policy on campus, and social media played a part in finally getting the stories into the mainstream, after close to 50 years of the women’s rights movement. When these survivors stepped in front of the camera, people realized that this could be any woman – our children, our family members, or our friends. It is an epidemic, and we were no longer going to stay silent or be ashamed.

Julie Smolyansky (foreground) Appears with Survivors and Lady Gaga for ‘The Hunting Ground’
Photo credit: Getty Images How did the message of the film spread?

Smolyansky: We initially screened at the Sundance Film Festival, but later in the year it was on CNN over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, when college kids were at home and could have a conversation with their families – that had impact. Until the film came along, I’d never seen parents, students and the society at large speak about the issues of rape on campus. We had to normalize these conversations, so we don’t create extra victimization of survivors. We have to shine a bright light on horrific moments in society if we’re going to create a better world for our children.

We’ve seen Title IV [equal education access law] investigations at schools as a result, we’ve seen more than 20 pieces of legislation directly get introduced as a result of what was revealed in the film, and we saw President Obama and Vice President Biden get involved. So I do think film can change culture, in a way that reading a story in the New York Times does not. In the three films you have been a producer on, what has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned about the filmmaking business, that was decidedly different than the business that you run as CEO?

Smolyansky: Well in the documentary space, the biggest and most obvious difference is that in those films you’re not in it for a financial gain. It’s a piece of collaboration and artistic expression, that pushes change and self expression, in the sense that everyone has a story. I am fortunate that I have a business outside filmmaking that can fund these stories and expressions, when I get the opportunity to do so. You had a whirlwind rise to CEO in your family’s business in 2002, due to the passing of your father. What were the circumstances of how you landed into the position back then?

Smolyansky: My father’s passing of a heart attack when he was 55 years old was sudden and unexpected. I was 27 years old, and my brother was just out of school at the age of 23. I had spent five years working in the business under him to that point, and basically overnight I was voted in as CEO.

It didn’t just happen. I had to fight for it, and I do have a fighter spirit and a survival instinct. During the mourning period after my father passed, his friends and colleagues were saying there was no way the business would survive. There was no way that a 27-year-old woman could run a company. I was so pissed that this was a conversation during a mourning period, and that a woman who was educated and working at a high level at the company wasn’t considered for leadership. This was my father’s life work, something I was completely connected to, and I knew I could take the reins. That moment continued to stay with me, for as frustrated and angry as I was, it proved to me that I could fight and that I really wanted to run the company.

2017 WIFC Focus Award Honorees: Mary Morten, Tari Segal, Julia Sweeney and Julie Smolyansky
Photo credit: Business, both nationally and internationally, is still for the most part structured at the leadership level by the patriarchy. What changes have you observed for women taking on leadership roles in business, since you’ve been a CEO, and do you see an evolution that will eventually equal the playing field more in the future?

Smolyansky: [Laughs] I definitely see the patriarchy fighting to keep their position in business culture, and I think it was most visible in the last presidential election. I feel that society is in pain because of this, but on the plus side I’ve seen men wake up to it, the double standard that played out in the election. They realize that they have work to do, to pull up women and take ownership on where we are as a society, and that they have work to do to help their female relatives and friends – to give a voice to women, not in a patriarchal way, but in a supportive way.

It is all of our jobs to make sure that women’s rights are human rights, and that they do have a place at the table, and we all push toward equality. The leadership numbers for women in business really haven’t changed since I began as CEO. There are only 21 female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, there is only 17 to 19 percent of female representatives in Congress, there are only eight female governors. It is still harder all around for women to get funding in business and film. There are only a very small group of female unicorns who have the power to tell stories on film. We need to have the courage to push back…all the effort is the work of bravery. Finally, do you have any new film projects on the horizon, and what subjects will you be tackling with that project that will illuminate perspective and information?

Smolyansky: My husband and I are working on a narrative film about the 1970s, based on the struggle for a lesbian woman in New Orleans, which ended up quite tragically. I want to bring the story to light, because these types of stories haven’t been visible. What is empowering is that these stories are emerging, and I want to make sure that they are told. We want to make these previously invisible stories, simply to make them more visible to a larger audience.

Women in Film Chicago presents their 2017 Focus Awards on Wednesday, February 22nd @ 6:30pm – at Columbia College, 1104 South Wabash Avenue, 8th Floor, Chicago. For more general information about Women in Film Chicago, click here. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald,

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