Earlier this month, 600 of the nation's best and brightest entrepreneurs (average age 29) gathered in Washington, DC, for the Summit Series DC10, an invite-only event designed to connect top young minds and inspire the new generation of leaders to succeed in business and in life. Business, Innovation, Altruism, Personal Growth, the Arts and Revelry were all represented, and the mind-blowing list of speakers included 42nd President Bill Clinton, musician John Legend, the founders of Craigslist, E! Entertainment, Guitar Hero, Ethos Water, XM Satellite Radio, Honest Tea and many more.
LG: What were your major impressions of the Summit?
JS: For three days, we ate, drank, slept entrepreneurship. It was an incredible place to be, surrounded by passionate, creative people. I left feeling impressed and motivated by everyone I met or listened to. It's inspiring to see the future leaders of our generation and all the possibilities that will unfold, from science and technology to food, business, politics, art, philanthropy. Even if a particular presenter wasn't from my field, just seeing their passion for their industry helped spark creative ideas about my business and my life. I was in the company of the founder of Ethos Water, dedicated to providing safe drinking water worldwide; the founder of Mama Hope Health Clinic, which helps build self-sufficient communities in Africa; the founder of To Write Love On Her Arms - a nonprofit committed to suicide reduction, addiction and depression.
LG: Some pessimistic reports have recently emerged, like Joe Queenan's Wall Street Journal blog, in which he wrote "Over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Millennials will graduate from institutions of higher learning...You really have no idea how awful this is going to be." What do you make of his prediction of the future for recent grads?
JS: I read that story on the flight home from DC and it was so depressing to see, particularly while still on the high of the Summit Series, which was filled with individuals paving the path to a brighter future. We should be encouraging the Class of 2010, not discouraging them, to think outside the box, to imagine what the future holds, to appreciate and tap into the speed with which technology moves now and how quick it helps business move. We're such an interconnected, global world. When I went to college, we were the first generation of college students to have email addresses. Now, my 22-month-old daughter has an iTouch and knows how to look at pictures of her grandma and dad on it. She watches family videos on it or language flashcards. She's not even two years old and she has apps. Just imagine what her future will hold.
LG: What other advice do you have for the Class of 2010?
JS: Take the opportunity to do something you won't be able to do when you have more responsibilities, before you put down roots. Homes still need to be built in post-Katrina New Orleans. Haiti still needs help. Africa needs help. And I don't necessarily mean physical labor - you don't need to build houses to do real good. You can make a tremendous impact by bringing businesses there, bringing ideas there. Bill Clinton spoke about how the biggest threat to mankind is the world's instability; there's extreme poverty, and economic instability creates crisis and threatens everyone. Look at Greece - and that's an advanced economy. Compare that to Africa where people have to walk four hours for water and malaria kills thousands of people. So maybe you start up a nonprofit that provides mosquito nets to Zimbabwe.
LG: How can new graduates find their passion?
JS: Identify a company to work for that shares your values and beliefs. Don't work for a company that doesn't accept you for you. If you can't find it, start your own. This recession might be the biggest blessing in disguise because it will force young people to venture out of the box and build opportunities that might not have otherwise existed. At the end of the day, you need a company that accepts you as who you are, a corporate culture that nurtures you. Hate suits? Find a company that hates suits. The new generation of workers isn't going to accept the old rules.
LG: What if you've already graduated but you don't know your passion yet?
JS: That's OK! Passions can take years, even decades to evolve. It took me 23 years to find mine. My first job out of college was as an in-home family counselor working with Chicago foster care kids. Now, here I am, CEO of Lifeway Foods, and I am finally living my passion. I believe in our product, that it aids people's health and strengthens their digestive and immune systems. Our customers are so grateful for it, and hearing their stories fuels me. I enjoy the creative process of dreaming up pioneering, cutting-edge foods like Green Kefir and Probugs. I enjoy the people I work with. If I didn't enjoy it, I don't know there would be a purpose to it.
Ask yourself: "What makes you feel good throughout the day?" Join trade groups in fields you're interested in and become an active member. Think about the web sites you visit everyday, products you enjoy, brands that appeal to you. If you love Hershey's chocolate and you're tech-savvy, call Hershey's and see if they have social networking opportunities.
LG: Your father, Mike Smolyanksy, founded Lifeway. How has he inspired you to become who you are today?
JS: My father came here from Russia with no Rolodex, no financial background, no money, plus a wife and a one-year-old baby. He just had one thing: An idea to bring his favorite food - kefir - to America. Now, here we are, on the cusp of our 25th anniversary, and we have 220 employees, did nearly $60 million in sales last year, and are sold in every major grocery store. I was especially fortunate to have a father who pointed out strong female role models to me. It never dawned on me that running the company wasn't something I could do.