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How Can Business Help to Support Refugees? 
Perspectives | Leaders on Purpose

How Can Business Help to Support Refugees? 

Hamdi Ulukaya is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Chobani. He discusses with the CEO and Co-founder of Leaders on Purpose Christa Gyori the importance of purpose.

7 minute read

21st Feb 2024

Hamdi Ulukaya is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Chobani, one of America’s most popular Greek yoghurt brands. Raised in a dairy-farming family in a small village in eastern Turkey, he founded Chobani in 2005 with a purpose of making good-quality food more accessible. In less than five years Chobani became the best-selling Greek yoghurt brand in the US, with more than a billion dollars in annual sales. 

Ulukaya has kept altruism at the heart of Chobani. From the outset the company has donated a portion of its profits to charitable causes, while Ulukaya also implemented a progressive profit-sharing programme for its 2000 employees. In 2016, he founded the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a non-profit to mobilise the private sector to improve the lives and livelihoods of the more than 36 million refugees around the globe. 

Here, Ulukaya speaks to Christa Gyori, CEO and Co-founder of Leaders on Purpose on the importance of purpose for how business can help to support refugees.

This conversation took place at the 5th annual Leaders on Purpose CEO Summit, find out more about the event here.

Gyori: How did Chobani begin, and where did your altruistic motivations come from? 

Ulukaya: I am Kurdish, from the eastern part of Turkey, and I have a nomadic background. Before I started Chobani, I had been working on a farm, milking 60 cows and making the time to learn English. I hadn’t read a single book about business – back then I was clueless. All I really knew was how to make yoghurt. 

Chobani started in 2007 in upstate New York, in an old dairy factory that had closed after being owned for 75 years by a large corporation. The local community, many of whom worked at the factory, had been abandoned. I began by hiring four of the workers that had been let go, starting out with very little resource, experience or money. All we had was a loan from the local government. 

“But the whole time, there was one rule I followed: I wanted to make sure that I didn’t end up becoming the person I grew up hating.”

It felt as if the odds were completely against us, especially as a large corporation had only recently closed the factory. But the whole time, there was one rule I followed: I wanted to make sure that I didn’t end up becoming the person I grew up hating. 

When I was young, I didn’t have a very positive view of business. It was common in our community to ‘hate business’ and ‘the rich’ – to believe that all of society’s problems were caused by the selfish acts of a few. Whether or not there’s truth to that, it’s a rule I’ve followed since. 

Gyori: Tell us about how you are supporting refugees.

Ulukaya: When I started Tent — my non-profit that mobilises the business community to connect refugees to work,  the most important milestone to successfully integrating in their new communities people questioned why I had chosen to focus on that issue in particular. 

“How can I look them in the eye if I’m not going to support them or people in similar situations?” 

I had just then built a factory in Idaho. People were advising me to spend the majority of my time getting this factory up and running. But I knew that I also had the ability to do something about the refugee crisis. We have employees from 19 countries – with 16 different languages spoken – many of whom are refugees. How can I look them in the eye if I’m not going to support them or people in similar situations? 

Hiring refugees and seeing first-hand the diversity, work ethic, and passion that they brought to Chobani as well as the long-term impact the job offered them in return inspired me to start Tent. We already have more than 300 multinational businesses in our network committed to supporting refugees and were proud to recently announce commitments from 45 companies with operations in the U.S. to hire more than 22,000 refugees, in partnership with Tent.

We need to bring forward the notion that a business is simply a collection of people. Otherwise, we disconnect from one of the most important elements of business: humanity

Gyori: How do you embed Chobani’s purpose throughout the company? 

Ulukaya: In the business world, purpose is a fairly new term, but it is not a new idea. To me, it’s what lives in our homes, in our families and in our communities. But for some time, it has felt like purpose hasn’t been connected to business. Somewhere along the way, the role of business completely changed and it became solely focused on profit; at that point, it lost a lot of dimension and soul. 

What I brought to Chobani was simply how to make yoghurt. But I got Chobani’s culture and attitude from the people – its community. It’s the farmers, the workers, those right in front of you. Whenever I shake an employee’s hand, that means something; it’s a debt to take care of and trust each other. 

“Whenever I shake an employee’s hand, that means something; it’s a debt to take care of and trust each other.”

We didn’t have any company purpose manuals or mission statements on our walls until years later. For us, purpose was founded in the beginning, from the minutes, hours, days and weeks of work – it wasn’t necessarily what we were writing on the walls. It’s about how people behave at any given moment. And most importantly, they look at the leaders and how they’re behaving. 

In our environment, I have been very conscious of that. I was very physically present in the first seven years of the company with people in the plant. If you want your people to be engaged, you’ve got to set an example as a leader, within the company’s walls. 

Gyori: What do you do when things get challenging? 

Ulukaya: It’s easy to celebrate a company’s culture when things are going well. But like any business, we’ve taken risks, had accidents and endured critical times. These are the most important times for a business. When you’re not doing well or sales are down, that’s when you create true culture. When this happens, you have to double down on your purpose, as this is when people are paying the most attention, and it’s what will get you to the other side. I’ve probably made a lot of mistakes in this field, but I made sure to be very close and present during these critical moments. 

Growth is beautiful as long as it’s aligned with this direction that you’re going. Every single decision you make impacts the culture in the company, even if you don’t start seeing the impact until years later. 

Gyori: How has following a more humanitarian approach affected your business? 

Ulukaya: A company’s altruism shouldn’t just be about philanthropic donations. One of the most effective ways for a business to be philanthropic is through acts of business. If you pay attention to every facet of a business such as the standards of purchasing and the internal cultures, that’s when you create real impact. 

“One of the most effective ways for a business to be philanthropic is through acts of business.”

For example, all of my employees have shares in the company. That brings another dimension of ownership; not only do you belong emotionally but also economically, as every one of my employees helped to build the company. 

One of the best decisions I’ve made for my personal purpose is my work towards supporting refugees and this has also had a huge effect on my employees. Everybody in the company is proud to have colleagues from all over the world who they work shoulder to shoulder with, supporting them in building their lives.