Jill Warren Lucas
Julie Smolyanksy became one of the youngest female president/CEO’s of a publicly-held U.S. company at age 27. The family-owned Lifeway Foods, a manufacturer of probiotic dairy foods anchored by its popular Kefir drink, had been run by her father until his death in 2002.
Accepting the mantle of leadership also meant taking on the company’s recognized role in actively supporting social causes through nonprofit organizations. It’s a natural transition for Smolyansky, who considered becoming a psychologist and worked as a rape counselor and youth advocate before joining the family business.
Smolyansky is particularly keen on programs that benefit women and girls, both nationally and globally. As a member of the United Nations Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council, which advocates to end violence against women, she lends her corporate prestige to bring to attention to complex issues of rape and sexual violence.
Smolyansky received an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference through the UN’s Global Mom Relay, an initiative to increase awareness of and raise funds to address complex social problems affecting women and children. A collaboration between Johnson & Johnson and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the initiative directs $5 to a specific cause (up to $8,000 per day) every time a supporter reposts a video about a cause via social media.
Smolyansky’s video about Test400K focuses attention on the estimated 400,000 rape kits that await testing globally. Whether a rape occurs in Eastern Congo or East Chicago, Smolyansky says the violation a woman experiences is compounded when the rape kit intended to identify an assailant sits untested in police evidence lockers.
“I was appalled when Human Rights Watch reported that less than 20 percent of rape kits collected after sexual assaults have been tested in the last 30 years,” she says. “If it was 400,000 victims of terrorism, funds would be redirected immediately.
“To me, this is an atrocity. It’s a massive human rights violation and most people are not aware of it.”
Smolyanksy is hopeful that the timing of April’s observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month will help to increase visibility of her initiative, as well as outrage over the failure of agencies to move forward with analysis of vital evidence.
The delay in testing typically is caused by lack of funding or debate about allowing private labs to conduct testing. A backlog in North Carolina was addressed in 2003 when the Attorney General urged legislators to strike language that put testing on hold if an assailant is unknown. Legislation is currently pending to create an additional state-run DNA testing site that could process rape kits.
Smolyansky is optimistic that innovations in technology will improve management of test kits through scannable inventory tags as well as upload results that will instantly notify law enforcement agencies if a specific suspect is wanted. She believes the lack of standardization regarding this type of evidence contributes to the low rate of rape convictions.
“There are inventory control and chain of custody issues here, and it’s something we can fix today,” Smolyansky says. “It’s not like we’re waiting for a cure for breast cancer, or HIV. Every time these kits are left in storage lockers, it means that perpetrators are out on the street and able to hurt another person. It’s tragic to see that our safety continues to be ignored.”
Smolyanksy cites shocking statistics about system failures that allow countless rapists to remain under the radar, where they can strike again. As the mother of two young girls, the fact that perhaps most alarms her is that one in four girls will be assaulted by the time they reach age 18.
“Once I learned all this, I thought, somebody needs to do something about this. I need to do something about this,” says Smolyanksy, adding that less than 7 percent of charity dollars go to issues related to women and girls. “I wanted to take this on because every day that goes by, we’re at risk. I feel a sense of urgency about putting away people who cause harm in our society.”
Funds raised by Test400K will be used to purchase a $200,000 device that can rapidly analyze DNA evidence for a pilot program in Chicago, where Lifeway is based. If successful, the program will expand to other cities.
“This is still a touchy topic for some people. For them, it carries a stigma,” she says. “But you can’t ignore a situation after you know the truth.”
NOTE: To learn more about other initiatives featured in the UN’s Global Mom Relay, visit http://www.unfoundation.org/globalmomrelay/.