Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States in 1994 with $3,000 in his pocket. He was a Turkish immigrant, 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, organizes every year sales of approximately $1.5 billionand Mr. Ulukaya owns most of the private company.
After starting a small business buying feta cheese, Mr. Ulukaya purchased an abandoned yogurt factory in upstate New York. Several years later, Chobani was flying off the shelves. As the business grew, Mr. Ulukaya began hiring refugees, a decision that led him to a dispute with Breitbart News and Infowars.
This interview, condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted as part of the TimesTalks Festival in New York this spring.
What was your childhood like?
I come from eastern Turkey. It’s Colorado weather: snow, mountains and then a beautiful spring. I grew up with shepherds. We were nomads. We would go to the mountains with herds of sheep, goats and cows, make yogurt and cheese, then return to the village in winter.
There was this feeling of being part of a community that provided so much security and safety. Basically, we grew up without worrying about anything. Money didn’t mean much, because in the mountains you couldn’t buy anything with it. If a wolf attacked your flocks and you lost all your sheep, each family would bring one. And the next day you would get all your sheep back. Not a day goes by without me returning to my childhood.
How did you find your way to the United States?
I went to a boarding school where you would eventually become a teacher. And I didn’t finish it and left. I was a Kurdish activist and all that, I was in trouble with the government. And one day I said, “I should leave.” I should go somewhere in Europe. It’s no longer livable. And a stranger said, “Why don’t you go to America?” Until this person told me, I never thought about it. We thought America was the source of all the world’s problems. Imperialist and all that kind of stuff. But I went to college, 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 dad 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 3,000 miles away to do exactly what we did at home.
Then there were two years of struggle. I thought I would go bankrupt any day. There was a stream right next to this little plant, and I would go there and cry and cry and cry. I say to myself: “Why did I get into this? And how am I going to pay for these people? How will I pay for the milk?
So how did you start Chobani?
I saw an ad for a fully equipped yogurt factory for sale, asking $700,000. Kraft was shutting it down. I literally threw the ad in the trash. It’s mixed with all my leftover tea and cigarettes. And about 30 minutes later I picked it up and called my lawyer.
My lawyer said, “They’re looking for some idiot to dump this on.” They probably have so many environmental problems. If they thought the factory was worth anything, they wouldn’t have closed it. And if they thought yogurt was a good deal, they wouldn’t make it.
But I couldn’t sleep. I called him back and said, “I don’t know what this is, but I feel like I can do something with this.” » And we succeeded. On August 17, 2005 I had this key for the factory.
“I don’t see any other way to find a long-term solution other than mobilizing businesses.” —Hamdi Ulukaya
And why did you call him Chobani?
It means “shepherd”.
It was 2005, and at that time Greek yogurt represented what percentage of the market?
Probably less than half of 1 percent.
And today, what share of the yogurt market does Greek yogurt represent?
More than 50 percent. From the fall of 2007 to 2012, we grew from a handful of people to thousands. And we went from zero to $1 billion in sales in five years.
Chobani is known for offering generous salaries and benefits, and you recently distributed employee equity. What’s behind all this?
Look, I’m from a working class background. And in the beginning, I was a factory worker. One of my first dreams was to make this company a place where everyone was a partner, and where everyone deserved a piece of what they helped build. So I did a calculation. If you make $7, $8, $9 an hour, you can’t have a house. You can’t give your children good food. Forget vacations. The math just doesn’t make sense.
And I look at it from a broader perspective. Especially for rural communities, I don’t see any other way to find a long-term solution than businesses mobilizing, for their own employees and especially for their own communities. We need to start caring about the well-being of our own employees, their families and children, the school, the fire station and the baseball field.
In your opinion, what is the role of businesses in society today?
Silence is criminal these days. Being silent is as bad as doing the wrong thing, especially when you represent a company, a brand, a community. You have to get involved. You must raise your voice and take a stand. We can’t solve every problem, but we have to make sure we stand for something.
Why did you start hiring refugees to work in Chobani?
I lived in Utica and heard that people from different parts of the world were moving to Utica. And one of the biggest problems they face is finding a job. So I said, “Okay, let’s find a solution to this problem.” » So we start hiring them. And these people are hard-working people. They’ve been through a lot.
There are now people from 19 different countries working in Chobani – 500 to 600 people, or 20 percent of our workers. Different languages are now spoken in Chobani factories. It’s like the United Nations.
An audience member asks: You talked about how you had this vision of America before you moved here, and I think that narrative of intolerance is only growing. How do you think we can change this narrative?
This magic that still exists in this country cannot be taught to anyone. 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 back this yogurt factory. There is this inexplicable thing in the air of this country. If it gets damaged, that would be the saddest thing.