Born in Turkey, Ulukaya was supposed to live a quite homeland life, continuing family cheese-making business. But such a scenario was not in the cards. Instead of it he happened to build $3.6 billion Greek yogurt industry in the US, creating a new kind of business leadership and social responsibility.

Studying political science at Ankara University in early 90s, Ulukaya participated in the Kurdish-rights movement, attending demonstrations and publishing a politically minded newspaper. Though he was never involved in any of existing extremist groups, he attracted the attention of the Turkish government. Knowing people who had a bull’s eye on their back, Ulukaya decided not to risk and leave the country. He managed to enter school in the US and four months later, in October 1994, he arrived in New York City.


Pre-Business Living

«I was extremely scared. I was aware that this was going to be very, very difficult. But I was excited», – Ulukaya recollects his experience when he spoke almost no English, had just a small suitcase and $3,000 for living expenses and started for Long Island’s Adelphi University.

Half of $3,000 nest egg was gone after a month of living in the US, and Ulukaya had to move to New York’s public Baruch College and earn for his living by working for an Armenian rug merchant and at a Brooklyn filling station. That time was hard for him: being unable to return to Turkey, he missed his family, trying to get through the next day.

By good fortune Ulukaya happened to visit a farm upstate he fell in love with. He catched on there and started to milk cows and shovel manure. So, he moved nearby and enrolled at SUNY Albany.


The Risk Taken

Ulukaya’s business career started accidently. In 1995, one of his brothers, Bilal, also entered the US and joined him upstate. Later their father came to visit them. Being not impressed with American-made feta, he suggested the boys import all necessary equipment from Turkey and start cheese-making business. That plan, which they put into action, was just a beginning of what Ulukaya resolved.

One day Ulukaya by chance pulled out a flyer from a real estate company. There he read: FULLY EQUIPPED YOGURT PLANT FOR SALE, which was located about 90 minutes away. Moreover, the price sounded impossible – $700,000. «I thought they left a zero off», – he says. Being attacked by his lawyer because of making an insane deal, Ulukaya took courage in both hands, decided that a delicious thick yogurt he ate with every meal back in Turkey would successfully fill the shelves of American grocery stores.

And here Ulukaya’s successful business story actually starts. He decided to put his yogurt in European-style tubs and printed the logo in brilliantly colored plastic sleeves, wrapped around cups at the factory. Being novel, these yogurts couldn’t be ignored by a customer in Walmart or another store all over the country. Well, in October 2007, the first cup of Chobani-brand yogurt rolled off the line. Since then the number of orders was only decreasing.

At first the staff consisted of nearly 30 people in 2008 worked frantically, in order to keep up with the orders.  «The next five years, I never left the plant», – Ulukaya recollects his days and nights spent at the factory to keep the pace. Between 2008 and 2012, the South Edmeston plant employed 600 people and was making over 2 million cases of yogurt per week. In 2012 Chobani sold $1 billion worth of the product. Obviously Chobani grabbed the biggest piece of the pie from Danone and General Mills, who happened to be absolutely unprepared. «We were so fast – so fast. When the large companies woke up, it was already too late», – he says.


Immigrants Campaign

In January Ulukaya made the 30-mile drive from South Edmeston to Utica, New York, to visit the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. The center has about 16,000 displaced refugees, many of whom arrived after fleeing war or persecution from Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Bhutan. That was exactly three weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump, which made refugees nervous.

In sober fact Ulukaya’s work with the center dates back to 2010. Knowing that refuges struggle to find work and feel very unconfident that they even can’t communicate, he suggested his factory as a possible duty station: «We can provide transportation, we can bring translators, and Chobani is a place where everyone is welcome. Look at me: I’m from a different part of the world. It’s going to be okay».

This experiment started slowly with 5, 10 and then 15 refugees. Today, nearly 30% of the company’s 2,000 employees are immigrants, came to the US from more than 15 different countries. About 400 of them are refugees.


More Than Business

Ulukaya strongly believes that each business should do its best to foster and support community. That is why he launched a nonprofit organization named Tent Foundation in 2015. It deals with funding and organizing refugee relief efforts and enlist other companies to help dealing with the human-displacement crisis. Now more than 70 firms as Cisco, IBM, Unilever have signed up for the Tent Partnership for Refugees, which means that they agree to donate resources and hire displaced people. Ulukaya also signed on to the Giving Pledge in 2015. He calls this policy «a smart thing to do» and believe that immigrants are «the most hardworking, patriotic, honest people». Ulukaya proves his devotion not only on paper – in just the past year, he has launched a «program to give away up to 10% of Chobani’s equity to his workers and instituted a generous six-week parental-leave policy».


Future Plans For Expansion

Later this year, Ulukaya is planning to «break ground on an elegant 50,000-square-foot office building in Twin Falls adjoining the Idaho factory», which will include a comfortable employee break room and cafeteria, an open atrium for meetings, and outdoor areas where workers can have a rest. The Twin Falls plant is known as the world’s largest yogurt-making facility, with up to 2.5 million pounds of milk coursing through daily.

The expanded plan with Twin Falls operation is supposed to make Chobani «tomorrow’s food company», that takes care of employees, uses only natural ingredients and does good in the world. As yogurt sales are increasing, Ulukaya is thinking to move beyond yogurt and beyond the US. Now Chobani is sold in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and other countries.

One possible idea for expansion also includes Chobani’s cafés, offering exclusive yogurt concoctions as well as Turkish-style simit sandwiches and other things. At the moment, there are two operating outposts in New York City. And their number is likely to increase by the end of the year.

Subscribe to WM Daily. Be In Touch With Rebellious Voices