When the founder, chairman, and CEO of Greek yogurt company Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, was asked to deliver the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School graduation on May 13th, he asked his employees at the Chobani plant what advice he should give the recent graduates.

They told him, "It's great that you have a Wharton MBA, but, please, don't act like it. Don't let it get in the way of seeing people as people and all they have to offer you, regardless of their title or position."

Coming from a humble background himself--Ulukaya came to the United States as an immigrant from a Kurdish dairy farm in Turkey to learn English--he emphasized the importance of listening to your employees and treating them with respect, no matter what their level. His main message to grads: Stay grounded. "If you want to fly high in business or in life, you've got to keep your feet on the ground," he said.

And Ulukaya has put his money where his mouth is: At every stage of building his business, he has sought to use his business to help his community.

Ulukaya started his company when he saw how the closing of a yogurt plant affected the surrounding community. "In 2005," he said, "I saw an ad that said there was a fully equipped yogurt plant for sale ... It was 85 years old, and it was closing because somebody in a glass tower, sight unseen, decided to close it."

He added, "There were 55 employees, and their only job was to break the plant apart and work to end their jobs forever. It was like someone had died--everyone in the community felt it. The company wasn't just giving up on yogurt or on the plant, it was giving up on them."

Ten years after purchasing the factory and starting with five employees, Chobani has grown to 2,000 employees, with the No. 1 yogurt brand in the United States.

In building his company, Ulukaya spent every day on the factory floor working shoulder-to-shoulder with the team for five years.

Reopening the factory, he said, helped revitalize the community: "For every person we hired, 10 jobs were created. People were buying homes, shops were opening, and a Little League baseball field was open for children in the town."

In 2016, he gave his employees 10 percent of the company's total worth through a profit- sharing program. 

"Business doesn't have to be dirty," he said. "In business, you learn about ROI, return on investment. You should also know 'ROK,' return on kindness. With return on kindness, we can immediately see results."

Published on: May 18, 2018