Chobani has, over the past decade, altered the landscape of the U.S. dairy industry by popularizing Greek-style yogurt--and becoming a $1.5 billion revenue, 2,000-employee business. But its founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, admits that when he first acquired an old factory in upstate New York in 2005, he didn't exactly know what he was doing. He quickly resolved to learn the parts of the jobs he needed to, and to get his hands dirty alongside his workers. In the process, he created the blueprint for a company whose culture has become his greatest source of pride. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
I'm Kurdish, and I'm from Turkey. I grew up on sheep farms, and in the mountains. What got respected most was a person's values. It wasn't money, it wasn't how many sheep a person had. It wasn't how tall the person was. A person's actions would earn them the respect they deserved. The community would grow to trust that the person would always be there. That the person would lead the way. That the person would bring solutions. I watched my father live this. I watched my mother live this in a massive way. They were clearly leaders in the community.
When I started, I had five factory workers. I couldn't promise them big things. I couldn't promise security, even--that would have been misleading. But I could stand up and paint the walls with them. That's the way I know. Action was my No. 1 thing: Walk the factory floor. Shake hands. Sit down, have lunch, joke, show vulnerabilities, show strength. Recognize people. I'm always there, shoulder to shoulder, on the frontlines.
It was OK at the start that we were not the smartest, most educated people in the world. From the beginning, I wasn't too shy to say: "I don't know" or "What does that mean?" I told that to the bankers; I said it in front of everyone. It's OK not to know. It's OK not to have that kind of experience. What's important is what you are going to do to learn and be a master at these things.
What I also tried to do from day one at Chobani was create a feeling of being home. I'm not an email person. I'm a physical interaction person. If you ask anyone who chooses to work at Chobani, they will say, "I feel like I am comfortable, I am myself. I am not a stranger here." It's a spirit of not just welcoming a new employee, but rather of letting someone truly be himself or herself.
People know us for our yogurt, for our product, but if you go inside the walls of Chobani, you know it is really a people's company. The first thing you feel is the human spirit. Whatever background you have, there is acceptance. It's not just that we gave 10 percent of the company back to employees. When I heard there were refugees in Utica who couldn't find jobs, I trusted in our culture to embrace them and knew it would be another beautiful thing to happen at Chobani. And it turned out that now we have 19 or 20 different nationalities of refugees and immigrants. There are more than 20 languages spoken in each plant, and almost 30 percent of our workforce is refugees. This is the American way. This is what our country was built on.
I am proud of how Chobani evolved from a startup to be this confident company that has discipline and structure but never lost its soul. I'm proud that Chobani feels young. It has this energy that can't be stopped. It's just humbling. What I'm most excited about is where this is going to go--what our next 10 years is going look like.
We can't solve all the problems of the world. For me, life is about building something that makes positive changes in people's lives. This should be the new way of business. If Chobani can lead on this, not only with the product it makes, but the kind of impact it has and the environment it creates, that would be a legacy that I could be proud of. If we can show businesses a better way, I think the world will be a better place.