A Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent, Mr. Ulukaya brought Greek yogurt to the mainstream. Along the way, he began hiring refugees, a move that drew threats from fringe websites and far-right commentators.
Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States in 1994 with $3,000 in his pocket. He was an immigrant from Turkey, hoping to learn English and find his way in a new country.
Today, Mr. Ulukaya is a billionaire. Chobani, the Greek yogurt maker he founded in 2007, has annual sales of about $1.5 billion, and Mr. Ulukaya owns most of the privately held company.
After starting a small business buying feta cheese, Mr. Ulukaya bought an abandoned yogurt factory in upstate New York. A few years later, Chobaniwas flying off the shelves. As the company grew, Mr. Ulukaya began hiring refugees, a move that landed him in a spat with Breitbart News and Infowars.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted as part of the TimesTalks Festival in New York this spring.
What was your childhood like?
I’m from the eastern part of Turkey. It’s Colorado weather — snow, mountains and then a beautiful spring. I grew up with shepherds. We were nomads. We would go up in the mountains with herds of sheep and goats and cows, and make yogurt and cheese, and then come back in the winter to the village.
There was this sense of being part of community that gave so much security and safety. We grew up not worrying about anything, basically. Money didn’t mean much because up in the mountains there was nothing you could buy with it. If a wolf attacked your herds, and you lost all of your sheep, each family would bring one. And the next day you would have all your sheep back. There’s not a day goes by I don’t travel back to my childhood.
How did you find your way to the United States?
I went to a boarding school where you would become a teacher in the end. And I didn’t finish it, and I left. I was being a Kurdish activist and stuff, getting in trouble with the government. And one day I said: “I should leave. I should go somewhere in Europe. This is not livable anymore.” And one stranger said, “Why don’t you go to America?” Until that person told me, I never thought about it. We thought America was the source of all the problems in the world. Imperialist and all that kind of stuff. But I went to university, they gave me a visa, and in 1994 I was here, with a little bag and $3,000 in my pocket.
How did you get into business?
My father came here and said: “You should make cheese here. There’s no good feta cheese here.” And I said: “Why would I do that? I didn’t come from 2,000 miles away to make exactly what we were making back home.”
Then it was two years of struggle. I thought I was going out of business every single day. There was a creek right next to this little plant, and I would go there and cry and cry and cry. I’m like: “Why did I get into this? And how am I going to pay for these people? How am I going to pay for the milk?”
I saw an ad for a fully equipped yogurt plant for sale, asking for $700,000. Kraft was closing it. I literally threw the ad into the garbage can. It’s mixed with all my tea remainings and cigarettes. And about 30 minutes later, I picked it back up and called my lawyer.
My lawyer said: “They’re looking for an idiot to unload this on. They probably have so many environmental issues. If they thought the plant was anything, they wouldn’t have closed it. And if they thought yogurt was a good business to get in, they would not have got out of it.”
But I couldn’t sleep. I called him back and said, “I don’t know what it is, but I feel like I can do something with this.” And we made it happen. By Aug. 17, 2005, I had this key for the factory.
“I don’t see any other way of finding a long-term solution than businesses stepping up.” — Hamdi Ulukaya
And why did you call it Chobani?
It means “shepherd.”
This was 2005, and at that time Greek yogurt represented what percent of the market?
Probably less than half of 1 percent.
And today, how much of the yogurt market is Greek yogurt?
Over 50 percent. From fall of 2007 to 2012, we went from a handful of people to thousands. And we went from zero to $1 billion in sales within that five years.
Chobani is known for offering generous wages and benefits, and you recently gave away equity to employees. What’s behind all that?
Look, my background is a working-class background. And in the early days, I was a factory worker. One of my first dreams was to make this company a place where everybody’s a partner, and they deserved a portion of what they have helped build. So I made a calculation. If you make $7 or $8 or $9 an hour, you can’t have a house. You can’t have good food for your kids. Forget going on vacation. The math just doesn’t make sense.
And I look at it from the bigger perspective. Especially for rural communities, I don’t see any other way of finding a long-term solution than businesses stepping up, for their own employees and especially for their own communities. We have to start worrying about our own employees, their families and their children’s well-being, and the school, and the firehouse, and the baseball field.
What do you think is the role of business in society today?
Silence is criminal these days. Being silent is as bad as if you’re doing the bad thing, especially when you are representing a company, representing a brand, representing a community. You have to get involved. You have to raise your voice, and you have to take a stand. We can’t solve all the problems, but we have to make sure that we stand for something.
Why did you start hiring refugees to work at Chobani?
I lived in Utica, and I heard that there were people being settled in Utica from different parts of the world. And one of the biggest issues they’re having is finding jobs. So, I said, “O.K., let’s find a solution to this thing.” So, we start hiring them. And these people are hardworking people. They’ve gone through a lot.
There are now people from 19 different countries working at Chobani — 500 to 600 people, 20 percent of our workers. There are different languages spoken in Chobani factories now. It’s like the United Nations.
An audience member asks: You talked about how you had this view of America before you moved here, and I think that narrative of intolerance is only growing. How do you think we change that narrative?
This magic that still exists in this country, this cannot be taught to someone. This cannot be implemented by the political system. Someone as strange as me can come to upstate New York and say: “You know what? I can bring that yogurt factory back.” There’s this unexplainable thing in the air that this country has. If it is damaged, this would be the saddest thing.
This article first appeared in www.nytimes.com
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