Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya’s Advice to Graduates: Embrace Change

Hamdi Ulukaya.
Hamdi Ulukaya. Photo: Getty Images.

Growing up in Turkey, the founder and CEO of the best-selling yogurt brand had his life planned out. Then he had to start completely fresh.

The path to success is paved with best-laid plans–but it’s the way you react when those plans inevitably get disrupted that proves how you’ll fare as an entrepreneur. That’s a lesson Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of yogurt goliath Chobani, knows well: After a terrifying experience derailed his entire life plan, he discovered a new world of possibility.

While receiving an honorary degree and delivering commencement remarks at Long Island’s Adelphi University, which he briefly attended, Ulukaya shared his story. Just two months before he enrolled in the university, his life looks radically different. It was 1994, and he was 21 years old living in his birth country of Turkey, attending university in the capital city of Ankara.

“My whole life was planned out. In the village where I grew up, there was this big shot that my father respected. I wanted to be that guy,” he recounted in his speech. “I learned that to be that guy, you had to go to this school in Ankara, and that’s what I did. Even my plans had plans. And then everything went away overnight.”

On an otherwise normal day, two policemen picked up Ulukaya off the street and held him against his will at a station in the center of Ankara. He’d been detained because he had recently started publishing a newspaper detailing the government’s human rights violations and wrongdoings. Ulukaya had heard “horrible stories” about other people who had similar encounters with law enforcement and worried he’d never see the outside of that police station again.

To his shock, after a day and night in detention, the authorities let Ulukaya go. To this day, Ulukaya says he still doesn’t know why he was allowed to leave, but at that moment he only had one goal: get out of Turkey. Suddenly, Ulukaya’s life plan was in shambles, and for his own safety, he needed to pull off a seriously hard pivot.

Ulukaya resolved to continue his studies in America, and in the fall of 1994 put an end to his old life and started a new one as an Adelphi student. Had Ulukaya not been thrown off his life path, he says he never would’ve gone on to buy a failing factory in upstate New York 11 years later, in 2005. In that factory, Ulukaya founded Chobani–which is expected to generate around $2.5 billion in sales this year–and found the path he was always meant to be on. “Most of us share this story: life happens and forces us to change,” he said.

While he wished for nothing but success for the graduates, he encouraged them to be prepared for the unexpected. “There’s a pretty good chance something will get in your way and cause your plans to change. When your life gets disrupted, you might not have control over what happens to you, but you have complete control over how you react to it and what you choose to do about it,” he said. “When life presents you with a different path, you might discover that there is more that you can be, and do, and know than you can possibly imagine.”