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Hamdi Ulukaya: A Shepherd of Employees

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Photo of  Hamdi Ulukaya  on Facebook

Photo of Hamdi Ulukaya on Facebook

“If you want to fly high, in business or in life, you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground, and stay rooted to see what matters most. The Chobani journey has taught me something special: what matters most, in business and in life, is the difference you make for other people, for your community, for your country, and for humanity.” - Hamdi Ulukaya

The Yogurt Kingpin

Even if you don’t know his name, you know his company. With a 1.6 billion dollar net worth, Ulukaya has created a brand people of all ages have come to know and love: Chobani. A true embodiment of the “American dream,” he came from Turkey with $3000, a small bag, and a visa. It wasn’t one of those “I’m going to make it big in the states” stories either. He came from humble beginnings and a nomadic lifestyle, having never thought much about this side of the world until, as he tells the New York Times, “…one stranger said, ‘Why don’t you go to America?’”. That was all it took.

Takeaway #1: If you have an inkling of a desire to do something, find a way, and just do it.

After a few years in America, he spotted an ad for auction for a closing yogurt plant. That was it. He saw the ad, had a gut feeling, and went with it – despite his lawyer dissuading him and all better sense. One of our favorite quotes comes from Lisa Kudrow’s 2010 commencement speech to Vassar College’s graduating class. She told them, “I think it's always a good move to listen to that inner voice if it doesn't lead to a crime.” For some reason that one’s always stuck with us. And time and time again it proves to make sense. Who knows, your next instinctual move could lead to a $1.6 billion net worth.

Takeaway #2: Follow your gut.* That’s it. That’s the whole trick to life.

*Again, let’s remember Kudrow’s modifier: if it doesn’t lead to a crime. We think that’s important to reiterate. If your gut is telling you to rob a bank, we hate to break it to you, but your gut is mistaken.

What happened was I saw this ad for a yogurt plant for sale. It was in my junk mail pile, and I threw it into the garbage can. And then about half an hour later, with the dirt on it, I picked it up from the garbage can, and I called out of curiosity. - Hamdi Ulukaya

So began Chobani. He started with five factory workers – a small but mighty army. Though he couldn’t give significant benefits or huge compensation to those five, what he could provide was action. He could give time, and he could lead by example, which is precisely what he did. He tells Inc. that he was never afraid to say “I don’t know” even from the start. Not knowing is part of the process. And, as always, we trust the process.

Takeaway #3: Lead by example. Lead by action. Always trust the process. By the way, if you don’t enjoy the process, the result won’t nearly be as sweet.

Entrepreneurship is seen as if you're in Silicon Valley or New York City and starting an app business or a social-media business, which is cool. But what we really have to focus on is people who make things, and how can we fund them, and how can we encourage people to stay in their community and make a difference in their community. - Hamdi Ulukaya

So now we look at Chobani as a company. Fun fact: Chobani is a variation on the Turkish word “çoban” which translates to “shepherd.” And that is what Hamdi Ulukaya has always been to his employees – a shepherd, a leader of his flock, always caring for their welfare and wellbeing. They do things differently which is probably why they were #39 on People Magazine’s Companies that Care list last year.

So what’s so great about the yogurt company? Besides the delicious dairy (obsessed with their Flips), Chobani has incredible perks. Hamdi has given 10% of his company back to his employees based on seniority, and some could even receive stock valued at as high as $1 million.

The company has hired refugees despite backlash from critics. As an immigrant himself, advocating for people from all walks of life is second nature, and it should be. There shouldn’t even be critics on this, but here we are. Again, we adore Hamdi.

Other perks of working for the coolest yogurt company going?

  • Paid parental leave – for moms AND dads. They give six weeks of 100% paid leave to “bond with a new child following birth, adoption, or foster care placement.”

  • A comprehensive wellness program, including gym membership reimbursement, an employee assistance program, a health advocate program, and of course, Chobani yogurt.

  • A spirit of giving back. In 2018, their employees “collectively volunteered 3,840 total hours through Chobani-sponsored community events” and over 3 million cups of yogurt were donated to local food banks and food pantries.

Takeaway #4: Work for a company that values its people more than it values its bottom line. Work for a company whose ethics you can get behind and support.

So now what? Simple: eat more Chobani. One, because yogurt is good for you, and two, if it goes to support this guy, we’re all in.

Just about anyone can make a good product, but it's the people that count. In the end, it's the employees who will take it from a kitchen-table idea to the next level. There are a lot of important things in business, but the people portion comes first. - Hamdi Ulukaya