“The odds were completely against me,” Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya recalls. “I was told by everyone this is the craziest thing anyone can think of.”
When Ulukaya left Turkey for the United States in 1994, he arrived as an immigrant without much money or a plan. He spent a decade learning English and working on a dairy farm, and in 2002, he built a small cheese company before he set his sights on something grander. In 2005, against the advice of all his friends, he obtained a Small Business Administration loan to buy a defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York that he saw for sale in a piece of real estate junk mail. And now, 12 years later, he has built that one-plant operation into Chobani, a multibillion-dollar yogurt business. While his products dominate the dairy aisle in American supermarkets, Ulukaya has proved that business can drive positive societal change and that profitability is not inimical to a corporate conscience.
Through his quietly charismatic personal example, Ulukaya set himself apart from many American business leaders by hiring hundreds of refugees and pledging 10 percent of Chobani profits to charity, empowering depressed communities where his yogurt production is based.
In 2017, he’s disrupting “Big Food” beyond Greek yogurt with healthy alternative products by bankrolling small start-ups in other food sectors, and he’s expanding his dairy plants in rural America, shoring up struggling local economies. He also established a start-up incubator in Australia with the aim of using his operations Down Under as a springboard to launch Chobani products into lucrative Asian markets. The gamble is already paying off: Chobani has become a top yogurt brand in Australia.
Though he’s known for his compassion, Ulukaya doesn’t play nice when it comes to hitting competitors. Last year, Chobani was forced to pull an ad campaign attacking yogurt rivals General Mills and Dannon for using artificial ingredients. The companies argued that Chobani misled consumers into thinking their products were unsafe.
But the boldness of his philanthropic practices — especially in his embrace of refugees in the current political climate — has set a bar for other manufacturers. Inevitably, it also awards Chobani a halo that may ultimately help its business.
At 45, Ulukaya embodies — and promotes — America’s foundational myth of the penniless immigrant-turned-industrialist. Born into an ethnically Kurdish dairy-farming family in eastern Turkey, Ulukaya fled to the United States in 1994 after being questioned by Turkish authorities on his pro-Kurdish-rights stances. He arrived in New York at age 22 having studied political science at Ankara University, but with next to no English and a mere $3,000 for living expenses. Today, the mogul is worth some $1.7 billion. His brand honors his family’s rustic roots; Chobani derives from the Turkish word for shepherd.
While turning borrowed family money and small-business government grants into a meteoric, job-minting phenomenon, Ulukaya has sustained his ethical scruples. As his success grew, he came to realize how powerful a platform for social change one business could be.
In 2011, he renovated a public baseball field in New Berlin, in upstate New York, with the children of his employees in mind, as Chobani hired and expanded its business in the region, helping revive communities beset by economic woes. Half of his company’s 2,000 full-time workers live in upstate New York. Ulukaya potentially made some of them overnight millionaires when he announced in 2016 that he would give 10 percent equity in Chobani to its employees. He is concerned about rising income inequality, so this was a natural step. “You have to walk the walk,” he says.
Ulukaya’s efforts in New Berlin were “the starting point in me saying, ‘How do I lift this community without owning this community?’” he says. “We are in an era now where businesses and entrepreneurs are the most effective change-makers … on social issues.”
His brand of business has won international accolades and awards but also death threats and the ire of far-right nationalists. Prominent xenophobic conspiracy theorist Alex Jones lost a legal battle to Chobani this spring after falsely claiming that refugees employed by the company were responsible for a sexual assault and an uptick in tuberculosis cases near its large plant in rural Idaho.
Despite this attention, Ulukaya shies away from labels like “activist.”
“I’m not a political person. I’m not an activist — I’ve never been,” he says. “I’m a yogurt-maker, and I’m an entrepreneur.”
Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Ulukaya’s plant in New Berlin, New York, can produce 2 million cases of yogurt a week.