Case Study: Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani

As business owners, we need to “see people again.”

Strong leaders are people-people. They come from close communities, or have a strong sense of one, and never lose connection to their humaneness. A connection that most business schools do not teach you about. This is why so many CEOs work tirelessly, sacrificing their lives for something as abstract as “shareholder value.” We all know how destructive this way of running a business can be to employees, clients, communities and the economy. This is why we must learn to create businesses based on human values.

Enter: Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani

Multi-millionaires often turn into philanthropists and humanitarians because it is good PR and expenses don’t hurt anymore (plus, there’s a tax deduction). But it’s different with Hamdi Ulukaya. He’s known as a die-hard humanitarian because he’s never pushed away his humanitarian side in business. In fact, he is a prime example of a man who made humanitarianism his business, in a market where every other business person would only focus on increasing their numbers and beating the competition.

Hamdi is the son of a Turkish shepherd and spent most of his life around cheese and yogurt. He learned the craft well, but was never really inspired by it. It was a means to an end, a tradition passed on by his father. That all changed when, one day, he saw an opportunity to buy a yogurt factory at a very convenient price. The rest is history… We have all had the pleasure of enjoying Chobani yogurt. 

What would you say if we told you that Chobani is not a dairy product, but a community product? Does that sound a bit strange? Well, therein lies the secret to its enormous success. Hamdi decided to purchase a yogurt factory that had gone out of business after seeing an ad for it that he initially tossed in the garbage. But something kept nagging at him. He didn’t know why yet, but he had to buy that factory- a risky endeavor, considering he had to pile more debt on existing debt, and was entering an overcrowded market: industrial dairy production. But, he was obsessed with making it happen because he sensed his mission- to help the community that had been working in that factory survive. He realized he had a chance at making an impact on dozens of families. And that was the ultimate value he wanted to provide. By making this decision, he entered into his personal zone of growth and embarked on his mission.

Hamdi has never looked back. He still focuses on transforming communities with his business. He employs large numbers of minorities, refugees and immigrants and has ignored advice against doing so. A few years ago he gave a large chunk of stocks to his employees, making them co-owners.

As we have pointed out before, all truly successful entrepreneurs are in the business of transformation. Hamdi’s real business is the transformation of communities… with yogurt. We, the consumers, are the helping hands that enable him to make it happen.

Hamdi could have taken the path of “the yogurt CEO”, focusing on profit and shareholders. Instead, he realized that his mission called for something bigger. Something that could not be expressed in numbers. Something that transcends market value: human value.

His success proves he is right. By transforming communities, those communities now stand with him. They live and die for the idea Chobani stands for. This has led to amazing employee buy-in. The kind of buy-in we hope to find in our employees.

His factory workers are his partners. They are his family, because he built the business around them. Their transformation is also his legacy and his success. 

A business that is built around true nature and leadership puts its community first. Even before its clients, because without community, there are no clients.

This kind of business does not believe in poorly paid service representatives, it does not have unmotivated phone operators, or stressed-out sales people, that feel abused and undervalued.

This is why many of us don’t feel successful. Because we don’t lead. Because we don’t transform. Because we don’t prioritize the question “who do we need to help?” Because we create silos within our own teams. Because we look at our staff as a resource and forget about their humanness.

Hamdi Ulukaya- this lovely and modest man, son of a shepherd, was brave enough to make visible what most of us have forgotten: every meaningful business must be a business for its community (its employees, their families, the city they’re in, and so forth), first. We serve people with people, so that we can remain human, and evolve humanity. It is up to us, as business owners, to step up to the plate and make it happen.

Watch his Ted Talk HERE.


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