The son of nomadic sheep farmers from the Turkish mountains, Hamdi Ulukaya was an improbable candidate to upend the ruthlessly competitive global dairy industry. After arriving in the U.S. in 1994 to study business and English, he settled in Upstate New York--and in 2005 saw a classified ad for an abandoned yogurt-making facility. Two years later, he launched Chobani, which today is an estimated $1.5 billion company and the top-selling brand of Greek yogurt in the country. The company, which also operates the world's largest yogurt facility, in Twin Falls, Idaho, pays workers, on average, twice the federal minimum wage and gives a portion of its profits to charitable causes. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
When Kraft's plant shut down in South Edmeston, in Upstate New York, in 2005, it was the latest of many closings. The feeling of its former employees there was "These large companies gave up on us." It was like being in a cemetery. Here I show up with a little knowledge, and an accent that was a lot worse than what it is now. I try to tell the former employees: We can start something! I couldn't promise security, or that the factory would really come back. It was me and five factory workers, and the odds were highly against us.
In two years, we were making yogurt. I wasn't as confident as I am now, and I would get shaken up talking to 40 employees. In our third year--2010--I decided to hire another CEO, because I thought I wasn't going to be able to do this. One executive had run some big companies and had a nice suit and a spiffy ride, and he really wanted the job. We met in a diner, and the way he interacted with the waitress was so rude. This is what I grew up hating: people who think they're better than everybody else. In that moment, I knew I wasn't looking for a CEO.
For hiring, supplies, and even contractors, my number one law from the beginning was that we do not go outside of this community [the Chenango and Otsego counties region]. But as the company grew, the circle of our "community" broadened to the Utica area for hiring. Refugees have been settling in Utica for decades. Some are from Africa, some are from Asia, some from Eastern Europe. They want to work, and they have the right to work. There are obstacles: language, training, and transportation. We figured it out.
Then one morning in 2014, I saw a photograph on the front page of The New York Times. It was a flow of people from the Yazidi community going toward the Sinjar Mountains in Iraq. One woman had one child on her back and another child holding her hand, and that child had some of the house remainings, which she clung to. The image of that woman was very familiar--I grew up in Turkey. But her eyes had an empty look. The look of walking toward the end, questioning: "Is there anyone that's going to help? Are we all alone in this?"
That morning, I started reaching out to a few people, including the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Rescue Committee. This is one of the most critical human crises that we've faced since World War II. It needs to be solved. There was also an extremely poisoned political environment that hit at the most vulnerable people in the world, the 22 million refugees. The more I dug in, the more I realized that one of the most essential things was to bring the business community into this issue--and go above politics.
My next startup was the Tent Foundation. We created this environment that is outside of the political landscape to meet humanitarian needs. I found alliances with companies, like Mastercard, Airbnb, and Johnson & Johnson, and then that grew. Today, we have some 80 companies that are publicly announcing their efforts to help solve the issue of refugees.
From the beginning, my goal at Chobani was not to build just a product--but to build a culture. To build tomorrow's company. I had the idea back in 2008 to share the company, 10 percent of its value, with the employees. I come from a background of farming, and I've always been angry about how ordinary working people are not recognized for their contributions. But we built this together! In front of my own eyes, I saw people sacrifice their holidays, sacrifice their family time, sacrifice sleep. I saw heroes. Taking all of that credit would not be fair.
I had 2,000 employees in 2016 when I announced that we were going to give them shares in the company. It was a beautiful day. And the company is different because of it. The staff was always proud, but this ownership piece was missing. This is probably one of the smartest, most tactical things you can do for a company. You're faster, you're more passionate. Your people are happier.
After my first son was born, I just couldn't believe that a lot of people go back to work the day after they have had a child. It's inhumane. Ninety percent of manufacturers in the U.S. do not have parental leave. It's shameful. If I'm a first-time dad or the mother and I go back the next day, my heart is not there. It's better for that person to stay home and have that magical moment with the baby and cherish that role. Starting in 2017, Chobani began a six-week parental leave [for parents of all persuasions, including adoptive parents]. I said jokingly, "Let's go make some babies." I had just had my second son.
If you want to build a company that truly welcomes people--including refugees--one thing you have to do is throw out this notion of "cheap labor." That's really awful. They're not a different group of people, they're not Africans or Asians or Nepalis. They're each just another team member. Let people be themselves, and if you have a cultural environment that welcomes everyone for who they are, it just works.
At Chobani today, 30 percent of our employees are immigrants or refugees. More than 20 languages are spoken at our plants. This was not about politics; this wasn't my refugee work. This was about hiring from our community. Refugees are dying to provide for their community. I always said that the minute they got the job, that's the minute they stopped being refugees. It's been proved to me that this was a plus to the culture.
I never thought I would lead a company of more than 2,000--or that one day I would be called a leader. I grew up with shepherds. I watched my mom and my dad be leaders in their community. Among sheep farms up in the mountains, what is respected most is people's values. You provide, you protect. The number one thing for me is I'm always there, shoulder to shoulder, on the frontline, on the factory floor, or on the road. We are together.