Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya on the Simple Idea That Harnessed ‘Unstoppable Human Spirit’

Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya speaks at Inc. Founders House at SXSW.
Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya speaks at Inc. Founders House at SXSW. Photo: Dennis Burnett.

At Inc. Founders House at SXSW in Austin, Ulukaya shared lessons from his experience hiring and training refugees in the early days of Chobani.

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the Greek-style yogurt brand Chobani, knows how to transform a business and a community at the same time.

In 2005, having immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey, Ulukaya learned that an abandoned factory owned by Kraft was going up for sale in the upstate New York town of South Edmeston. With assistance from the Small Business Administration, Ulukaya bought the factory for $700,000 and hired back nearly everyone who had lost their jobs at Kraft.

“When I first bought the factory, I think I was one of just two people in town who had an accent,” Ulukaya said during a panel conversation at Inc. Founders House at South by Southwest in Austin on March 11. Upon learning that a large group of refugees in the region had the right to work but were having trouble finding jobs, Ulukaya paid them a visit. He realized there were a few key obstacles standing in their way: They didn’t have driver’s licenses and cars, some didn’t speak English, and many lacked the necessary job training.

“I said, ‘Well, we can get some buses and cars, we can hire translators, and we can train them in the factory, so why don’t we just start?’ It turned out to be one of the most amazing aspects of my journey with Chobani. Aside from it being the right thing to do, I saw how this infusion of unstoppable human spirit brought everyone at the company closer together.” In 2023, Chobani will likely generate around $2.5 billion in sales, according to Ulukaya.

The experience with the refugees also inspired Ulukaya to start the Tent Partnership for Refugees in 2016. The partnership is a nonprofit that advises companies on how they can build effective refugee hiring programs and integrate refugees into their workforces.

“In that little town where I was the second guy with an accent, we eventually had over placeholder15 different languages being spoken by residents who moved there for work,” Ulukaya said. “People from all over the world, shoulder-to-shoulder, making yogurt.”