Hamdi Ulukaya on Bring­ing Hu­man­ity to Lead­er­ship


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.

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 any-

one 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 first­time 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 en­v­i­ron- ment 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.

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