Hamdi Ulukaya – From learning English to becoming the founder of America’s most popular Greek Yoghurt brand, Chobani.

Hamdi Ulukaya – A migrant who became a billionaire producing yoghurt.

Hamdi Ulukaya is the founder and CEO of Chobani, a company that produces Greek yogurt. Chobani means shepherd in Turkish.  Hamdi was born in Turkey in 1972 and graduated from Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University with degrees in Computer Science and Business Administration.

After finishing university, Hamdi immigrated to the United States in 1994 with his family, who were Kurdish refugees fleeing persecution from Iraq. He was only twenty-four years old at that time.  When Hamdi arrived in the United States, he studied English in New York, an area that reminded him of the small farming villages in Eastern Turkey. After that, he started working for a Wall Street investment bank but soon realized that it wasn’t for him. So, he quit his job after only six months on the job.

Hamdi wanted to buy a factory. One day, Hamdi called his friend Mario and told him ‘I want to buy this factory’. Mario answered ‘Hamdi, one of the largest companies in the world is closing this place and getting out of the yogurt business. Who are you to make it work?’ Hamdi agreed. But the next day, Hamdi called Mario again ‘I really want to buy this place.’ Mario replied ‘Hamdi, you have no money. You haven’t even paid me in six months! At first, nobody thought this was a good idea. Not family members, not business advisors, not friends.

In 2005, after getting a loan, Hamdi bought an old yogurt plant. The first thing he did was hire four people from the previous factory. Maria was the office manager.  Frank was the wastewater guy. Mike was the maintenance guy and Rich was the production manager.

Hamdi Ulukaya founded Chobani in 2007 with four employees and two old machines. In the first board meeting, Hamdi decided to buy paint and paint the walls white. That was the only idea he had! But he had a wonderful vision. He told his four employees ‘In two years, we are going to launch a Yoghurt here that Americans have never seen and tasted before. It will be delicious. It will be natural.’ He developed a recipe inspired by his heritage and started selling his yogurt in 2007.   

Five years after his first board meeting with only 4 employees, Chobani became the number one Greek yoghurt brand in the United States. For five years, Hamdi and his team worked day and night, through the holidays to fix the factory. It was hard yakka!

A decade later, Chobani pulls in more than $1 billion in sales every year and expanded into non-dairy in 2019. By 2016, his company was valued at $3 billion with more than 2,000 employees.

Hamdi is an example of a great leader and businessman. Hamdi believes that companies should focus on humanity and not just on profits. A business exists to maximise profits for its shareholders. But not for Hamdi. His philosophy in business is based on giving back to the community and gratitude. According to Hamdi, businesses should take care of their employees first. In fact, the people who helped Hamdi rebuild the factory have a financial stake in the company. Hamdi has also helped refugees from Southeast Asia and Africa to get a job at Chobani. At one point, 30% of all Chobani workforce were immigrants and refugees.

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