“Food is a human right. Food is our right to have. And it shouldn't be connected to, you know, status, where you live or where your income is. So, I think I have this one simple line for my business colleagues: Make the food that you can serve to your own children.”
—Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO & founder, Chobani; Founder, Tent Partnership for Refugees
A LESSON IN THE POWER OF COMMUNITY
Growing up a shepherd boy in the tranquil mountains of Turkey, Hamdi Ulukaya had little to fear. Except wolves.
When sheep are your family’s source of income, a single wolf attack could destroy your livelihood in an instant. But on those horrible occasions, the community stepped in. An impacted shepherd could expect to receive one sheep from each of the neighboring families—at times amassing more sheep than their initial flock.
This kind of support—neighbor looking after neighbor—is a lesson that has stayed with Ulukaya since his childhood. As CEO and founder of Chobani, food maker and America’s #1 yogurt brand, he knows from lived experience the strength and security that a close-knit community provides.
When he launched Chobani (Turkish for “shepherd”) in 2007, Ulukaya embedded community within the company’s purpose.
OPPORTUNITY SPRINGS FROM ABANDONED SPACES
The town of New Berlin, New York became an integral part of Chobani’s success and a foundational partner on its journey. Shared prosperity within the community would become a powerful gateway to joy and community moments. But before any of that, Ulukaya had to first figure out how to purchase and turn around a factory—a recently shuttered Kraft plant—in rural central New York state.
His tour of the closed facility, led by Rich, the laid-off production manager, was full of personal stories and shared memories from its century-long history, including tales of Rich’s father and grandfather, both of them former factory employees.
The treasure that I found in that factory was dignity of work, strength of character, human spirit—what we need to unleash all across the world.
With little money to his name, Ulukaya obtained a US Small Business Administration loan and bought the factory for $700,000. He immediately hired back the factory’s workers, including Rich.
With a thriving business as its linchpin, the community of New Berlin has staved off a downturn and grown like never before.
Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO & founder, Chobani; founder, Tent Partnership for Refugees
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 each just another team member. Let people be themselves, and if you have a cultural environment that welcomes everyone for who they are, it just works.
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.
Today, the businesses that already have it all ask communities, ‘What kind of tax breaks and incentives can you give me?’ The reality is, businesses should go to the struggling communities and ask, ‘How can I help you?’
FIDELITY TO VALUES
As Chobani grew, the number of new hires needed to support expansion grew, leading Ulukaya to hire immigrants and refugees alongside American workers.
For four decades, a vibrant immigrant and refugee population had buoyed the nearby town of Utica; immigrants accounted for about one-quarter of its population of 62,000 at the time. In addition, the area’s growing population of recently resettled refugees were eager to contribute to their new community. Informed by his own experiences, Ulukaya saw what others might not: a talent pool of capable workers with much to contribute to the company and its culture.
Some people warned Ulukaya of the challenge of hiring immigrants and refugees who don’t speak English. “I don’t really, either,” he replied. “Let’s get translators.” They don’t have transportation, pressed skeptics. “Well, let’s get buses,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”
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. 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.
39,000+ refugees hired by Tent member companies
The success and collaboration of Chobani’s immigrant, refugee and American workforce inspired Ulukaya to launch the Tent Partnership for Refugees in 2016. Through Tent, he and his team are mobilizing the business community to help integrate refugees economically in their new communities, and normalizing hiring refugees. The nonprofit coalition counts more than 180 major companies among its membership, from Airbnb to Unilever, each of them committed to welcoming refugees. Chobani may have been a first mover in refugee hiring, but a dynamic movement is now on the march.
Mirroring the shared purpose and responsibility that defined his upbringing, Ulukaya made waves in 2016 when he launched Chobani Rewards, giving full-time employees, regardless of their level and position, the opportunity to share in the future success of the company. In 2020, Chobani leadership announced it would raise the starting hourly wage to at least $15 an hour. As a result of this pay raise, which went into effect in 2021, Chobani’s average hourly rate at the company’s manufacturing plants is approximately $19 an hour, more than double the federal minimum wage.
Just about anyone can make a good product, but it’s the people that count. In the end, it's the employees who will take it from a kitchen-table idea to the next level.
—Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO & founder, Chobani; founder, Tent Partnership for Refugees
Hamdi Ulukaya on how businesses can step up for refugees (PBS NewsHour, June 2019)