The Profile Dossier: Hamdi Ulukaya, the Shepherd-Turned-Billionaire CEO
“When you start walking, a road appears.”
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Shepherd. Immigrant. CEO. Billionaire.
Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya may have one of the business world’s most unlikely stories.
Growing up in Turkey near the Kurdish mountains, Ulukaya’s family raised sheep and goats and made cheese. They led a remarkably simple life. What separated the rich from the poor in his community? “If you’re a little better off, it doesn’t mean that you have more things,” Ulukaya said. “It just means that you have more sheep.”
Ulukaya emigrated from Turkey to New York City to study at Long Island’s Adelphi University in 1994 with $3,000 for living expenses and little knowledge of American culture. The English he knew consisted of: “I. Am. Hamdi. I. Am. From. Turkey.”
“I didn’t know anything about America,” Ulukaya said. “It didn’t connect with me at all. We thought capitalism was the reason for the suffering of poor people.”
To Ulukaya, people who succeeded in business looked down from glass towers and made decisions that had the power to hurt poor families like his. “It took me a long time to realize that business doesn’t have to be a dirty field,” he says. “You can put all of your passion into doing good.”
After several years of living in the United States, Ulukaya saw a gap in the market. American grocery stores offered many varieties of flavorless, thin commercial yogurt that didn’t match the quality of the yogurt he grew up eating. He was used to making strained thick yogurt himself, so he wondered whether there was an opportunity to introduce it to American customers.
In 2005, he took out a loan to buy a recently-shuttered dilapidated Kraft yogurt factory in upstate New York. His lawyer, family, and friends all advised against it, but he did it anyway. He named the business “Chobani,” which translates to “shepherd” in Turkish.
Five years later, Chobani became the top-selling Greek yogurt brand in the U.S. with more than a billion dollars in annual sales.
“In 1994, I came to New York to study English and later became drawn to the idea that anyone can start something in America—all you needed was a dream and the willingness to take a risk,” Ulukaya said.
(Photo Credit: Chobani)
On winning America’s culture war: As a 22-year-old immigrant student, Ulukaya paid for college by working for a rug merchant and pumping gas at a Brooklyn filling station. Hamdi’s career in yogurt started by accident after he launched a tiny feta cheese company. He’s built Chobani into a multi-billion dollar empire — with a mission to give a chance to those who need it most. About 30% of his company’s 2,000 employees are immigrants from more than 15 different countries. About 400 are refugees. This is a must-read profile.
On the anti-CEO playbook: In this TED Talk, Ulukaya makes a bold claim: The playbook that CEOs and business leaders have used for the last 40 years is broken. “We need a new playbook that sees people again — that sees above and beyond profits,” he says. Here’s how Ulukaya believes modern “anti-CEOs” can improve business by putting people and communities at the forefront of their decision-making.
On becoming an empathetic leader: Chobani began its life with very little resources, an old abandoned factory, and a community that had been left behind. Any business case study would tell you that what Ulukaya built is impossible. “If you believe in the people you work with, and listen to them, and learn from them, and give them a reason to believe in you, everything is possible,” Ulukaya says in this Wharton MBA Commencement speech.
On developing a healthy relationship with money: What is your attitude toward money? Your relationship with money is the most critical aspect of your journey as an entrepreneur. “If you put value to money with planes, apartments, and yachts, and all that kind of stuff, you’ll have a very hard time moving forward,” Ulukaya says. “If you recognize that money is just a tool, then it will be easy.” This is a must-listen for any aspiring entrepreneur.
On hiring immigrants and refugees: Chobani has made it a point to hire not just immigrants, but also refugees. “I understand what it means for someone to come settle in this strange country and not know the language and not know anyone,” Ulukaya says. “I can only imagine how much more difficult it is if you’re a refugee — that means you’ve been forced to leave your country.” There are 19 different languages spoken within Chobani factories. Ulukaya fundamentally believes that everyone deserves an opportunity, and a job can transform someone’s life.
On coming up with ideas: Chobani’s journey began in 2005 when Ulukaya bought an old yogurt factory from Kraft. He hired several of the factory’s former employees — Maria, the office manager, Frank, the wastewater guy, Mike, the maintenance guy, and Rich, the production guy. In their first board meeting, Mike asked, “Hamdi, what are we going to do now?" Ulukaya said that the strategy was to paint the exterior walls of the factory. “When you start walking, a road appears,” he says. “With the motion of painting the walls, we started coming up with ideas.”
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Follow the anti-CEO playbook: Ulukaya’s “anti-CEO playbook” consists of four components: gratitude, community, responsibility, and accountability. “Today's business book says: business exists to maximize profit for the shareholders,” he says. “I think that's the dumbest idea I've ever heard in my life.” When you’re going into business, Ulukaya suggests keeping this idea in the forefront of your mind: Take care of your employees first. The profits, the tax breaks, and the financial incentives should always be secondary to the human beings building the business.
Find the calm in the storm: As an entrepreneur, you will undergo dramatic highs and just as dramatic lows. Ulukaya says you must learn to remain calm in all situations — regardless if they’re positive or negative. He recommends repeating the phrase “This too shall pass” like a mantra when you feel horrible and when you feel like you’re on the top of the world. Keeping a cool, consistent state of calm can make you a better leader and more effective decision-maker.
Be conscious of your environment: To start thinking like an entrepreneur, you need to first become aware of your surroundings. Here’s the catch though: He’s not talking about the buildings on your street or the cars you see sitting in traffic. He’s talking about the human beings that surround you. “If you’re not aware of your surroundings, that’s a problem,” he says. “And if you are aware of your surroundings, and a human being is not at the center of it, that’s also a problem.” Ulukaya grew up listening to the stories of fellow shepherds and empathizing with their life journeys. It’s then that he learned the importance of kindness and authenticity. “The most sacred place you can always go to is you,” he says. “In you, the place where you always want to go is your heart.”
Find a common enemy: Although Ulukaya talks a lot about kindness, that's reserved for his own people. The Chobani CEO is a fierce competitor when it comes to obliterating his rivals. “I hate my competitors,” Ulukaya says. “I have to create an enemy, and I have to get rid of it, in a metaphoric way. I don’t hate people; I hate the idea. We hate Big Food.” As the underdog, Chobani went hard after its competitors until it became America's top-selling Greek yogurt brand. The key to his success, he says, has been the ability to fuse his relentless competitiveness with a strong sense of compassion. “I’m a shepherd and I’m a warrior,” he says about the differing but complementary sides of his personality.
Let people be their true selves: How do you cultivate a healthy culture where people feel like they can be their authentic selves? As a leader, Ulukaya believes you have a responsibility to create an environment where people don’t feel like they have to pretend in order to fit in. “One of the first things I did was normalize the phrase, ‘I don’t know,’” he says. “It’s OK if you don’t know something. If you are trying to be someone you’re not, then you’re pretending. If you erase that, you save 50% to 70% of your time.”
Seek out diversity in opinion: Chobani prides itself in diversity in background, gender, and thought. The company’s workforce consists of Americans, immigrants, and refugees. As of 2019, 50% of the members of its leadership team are women. “When you go to a garden and you see a number of different flowers and plants, that’s what makes the garden beautiful,” Ulukaya says. After Chobani became intentional about diversifying its employee base, the pace of innovation grew exponentially. “Having different opinions but finding how to work together and contribute to common goals is the simplest thing, but it’s extremely massive in the life of a company,” he said.
Pay it forward when you can: In 2015, Ulukaya gave jobs to immigrants and refugees at a time when they needed them most. In 2016, he gifted his 2,000 employees 10% of the company they helped build. In 2019, it was reported that a school district in Rhode Island would be instituting a policy where students who had outstanding school lunch debt would only be served sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches. Ulukaya stepped in and paid the $77,000 to cover all the students' outstanding school lunch debt. If you’re a business leader, Ulukaya believes, you have a responsibility to pay it forward. “Business can and must do its part in the communities they call home,” he says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“What matters most in business and in life is the difference you make for other people and for your community.”
“When you start walking, a road appears.”
“I think survival is entrepreneurship. When you’re a nomad, you make decisions and find solutions every day.”
“I’m a shepherd and I’m a warrior. I come and go between those two. I’m a nomad, and nomads are the most real people. You can’t pretend.”
“You have to lead by example. Chobani can inspire a new way of business, a new way of work, a new way of innovation.”
“If you are right with your people, if you are right with your community, if you are right with your product, you will be more profitable, you will be more innovative, you will have more passionate people working for you and a community that supports you.”
“Ask others for advice no matter what their job is, and listen to them — and really listen to their answers.”
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