CEO Watch: Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani

Here at Two Lane we are following those CEOs that are getting press coverage for their sustainability initiatives. We will analyze and follow their initiatives pointing out what is working and what our questions might be.


This week’s CEO is Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani.

Chobani is a yogurt company that started off with humble roots. Ulukaya arrived in the United States from Turkey in 1994 with $3,000. He learned English and started Chobani in 2007 by buying a small Kraft factory in upstate New York with a small business loan in 2005. At that time, there wasn’t any good feta cheese in the U.S. and very little greek yogurt. So, he thought that Chobani could fill that gap. Now 50% of the yogurt market is greek and Chobani went from $0 to $1 billion in sales in 5 years. According to the New York Times, he thought he was going out of business every day for about two years.

So, our question is – what is the secret?

Hiring practices

We can certainly examine his hiring practices. When he started out, he hired refugees and still does.

“The minute a refugee has a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee,” Ulukaya has said.

Now, 20% percent of Chobani’s workers (about 600 of them) are from other countries. He has said the factory is like the United Nations. Diverse teams matter. While hiring refugees is noble, it is also good business because diverse workforces are revenue drivers.

Further, he has given 10% of the privately held company to these workers. In 2016, on a Tuesday, all 2000 workers of the company were informed that they have been given equity in the company. This could make the staff of the company very rich if the company sells or goes public.

Partnerships with community foundations

He also looks very carefully at the wellness of the communities where Chobani has its operations – upstate New York as well as in Idaho . The interesting thing here is that Chobani works with community foundations in both areas to identify the recipients of annual grants that Chobani gives to further its mission to make a difference.

In New York, the Community Foundation of South Central New York has established a  $100,000 annual fund to support grant making that helps to 1) expand economic opportunity and 2) promote entrepreneurship for residents of Chenango, Delaware, Madison and Otsego counties.

In Idaho, Chobani partnered with the Idaho Community Foundation to create The Community Impact Fund.  Grants will be awarded for programs or projects that impact the community by driving economic activity. Businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits in the area. They are taking grant applications until October 28th.

These foundations have been working in these communities long before Chobani showed up and have deep institutional knowledge of the area as well as the trust of the community. Having a knowledge of the community where you want to make a difference will improve your impact and make it sustainable. This avoids pet projects and wasting money trying to solve problems that don’t exist.

A dedication to the bigger picture

Ulukaya has said in very large letters on his website that it was always about more than yogurt. As far as his measures for success he states that the “most important thing is that we make a difference”. He is doing that by starting an incubator designed to boost “small startups with big hearts” to help to challenge the food industry, improve broken systems, and make a difference. Further, the company is known for reducing their CO2 emissions as well as looking after the cows comfort in their operations.

But, what about the hard days

Working in business is tough. You have payroll to meet and revenue targets to hit. One could argue that sustainability measures are a distraction or meant for when the company is doing well. The answer this, which Ulykaya gave in a recent New York Times:

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. – Hamdi Ulukaya

Finding ways for brands to meet global, national and local goals is a lot easier when it is already baked in to your strategy from the beginning. However, it isn’t impossible to start from where a brand is now as well. Partnership with great non-profits, authenticity and honesty will be key. Chobani has always been about more than yogurt and we look forward to following the activities of these programs.

Categories: Food and Drink, Inspiring People, Partnerships

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