Hamdi Ulukaya is a Turkish-Kurdish businessman and entrepreneur, currently living in the U.S. where he established the Chobani yogurt brand and currently serves as the company’s CEO. Emigrating to the U.S. in 1994 to learn English, Ulukaya eventually founded Euphrates, a small wholesale feta cheese plant after being consistently unimpressed by the feta cheese he encountered in the U.S. Back in Turkey his family had run, and still does, a small business making cheese and yogurt, using the milk of locally-raised sheep, and after initially importing his family-made cheese from Turkey and selling it America, Ulukaya decided to adapt his family’s recipes and techniques to make locally-sourced feta cheese using cow’s milk rather than sheep’s milk.
He ran the business without rest for two years until the business broke even and started turning a small profit; two years he has described as “the most difficult time of [his] life.” Then one day in the spring of 2005, he received a notice in the mail advertising the sale of an old Kraft yogurt plant in New Berlin, NY. Going to see the plant almost on a whim, Ulukaya decided to buy it right after his visit, launching his now billion dollar company: Chobani, which means shepherd in Turkish.
It took more than a year for Ulukaya and the yogurt master he had hired to develop the perfect cup of yogurt. Their aim was to craft a palatable strained yogurt without adding large amounts of sugar as other yogurt brands were doing at the time, using their own locally-sourced dairy and domestically-grown fruit. It took a while to develop, but by 2007 they had a product they were proud to release and a solid business plan: they wanted to sell Chobani yogurt in large chain supermarkets, and they wanted the yogurt to be sold in the dairy aisle, not in the specialty-foods section. According to Ulukaya, “‘The early thought was that Americans wouldn’t like [Greek yogurt] unless it was mixed with a lot of sugar,”’ he said. ‘But it wasn’t that they didn’t like it. Large companies just didn’t make it.’” And within a few years orders for Chobani yogurt began booming.
For Ulukaya, despite the booming business that has turned Chobani into a national product, “business is something that is conducted between people and in communities,” a concept he’s endlessly demonstrated. “Between the plants in New Berlin and Idaho, Chobani has invested more than $700 million in factories in rural areas,” boosting the local economies and creating sustainable jobs in the area(s). And in April 2016, Ulukaya announced to the 2,000 full-time employees a the New Berlin plant that “they’ll receive shares worth up to 10% of the company’s value when it goes public or is sold,” a practice that’s uncommon in the food industry. Addressing Chobani’s employees, Ulukaya stated, “‘I want you not only to be a part of this growth—I want you to be the driving force of it. To share in our success, to be rewarded by it.’”
Last year, in September 2015, Ulukaya also extended his charitable outreach to Syrian refugees when he visited the Greek Island of Lesbos. After witnessing their desperate conditions and complete lack of resources, pledged to dedicate “the majority of [his] personal wealth to assist refugees and the displaced,” as part of the Giving Pledge, and also created the TENT Foundation. TENT’s platform calls upon other CEOs and companies to directly donate provisions and services to refugees in need and to offer employment opportunities for refugees, as Chobani has been doing for years now. In addition, Chobani as a company also “gives 10% of its profits to organizations with similar values.” Speaking to Here and Now on WBUR, Ulukaya quantified his position on hiring refugees specifically, stating, someone who has endured so much emotionally, physically, and psychologically, to survive and make their home in a new place will be “the most productive person” because “nothing will scare them anymore,” advocating that refugees not be categorized as a burden for society, but a tremendous source of untapped potential.