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Ahead of World Refugee Day, Chobani founder appeals to CEOs

Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of leading Greek yogurt brand Chobani, says he is evangelizing the idea of a so-called ‘CEO playbook’ to shift some of the focus from shareholder wealth and profits to employee welfare and humanitarian goals. In a TED Talk in Vancouver in April, Ulukaya said that the private sector is better equipped than governments and international organizations like the U.N. to solve global crises like income inequality, climate change and migration.

Ahead of World Refugee Day on Thursday, NewsHour Weekend profiled Ulukaya, and asked for more details about this ideology.

Read an excerpt of the interview with Ulukaya below, or watch the full video in the player above.

You grew up in Turkey, and you’re Kurdish. How did that part of your life shape and influence your business philosophy?

Hamdi Ulukaya: Before Kurdish I’m a nomad. I grew up as a nomad — going up in the mountains, make cheese and yogurt, come back to the village. It was a simple life. So the world of business, the world of commerce, the world of rich were far away from where I grew up.

In our community, money was not something you talked about too much. It was more about honor, dignity, who is more respected. I grew up as someone who was very conscious of human rights. At the same time, we saw the world as not being fair.

So then you come immigrate in 1994, and in 2007 Chobani hits the shelves of the grocery stores in America. You have 2,000 employees, 30% of whom are refugees and immigrants. How did you work around the issues that immigrants face like work visas, cultural differences, languages?

Hamdi Ulukaya: I started with four factory workers. When we expanded and started hiring more people, I heard that there were refugees in Utica who could not find jobs because of languages and lack of transportation. I didn’t even think that that was a refugee work. I thought, “Wow, there are some people in the community who are ready to work and they are called refugees.” Those were simple problems that could have been easily solved. We can get translators. We can get buses. We can get trainers and let them be part of the community.

In 2016, you started Tent.

Hamdi Ulukaya: Yes. When I started Tent, that’s when I realized that what he did at Chobani was extremely powerful. Not the handouts or what you can give them but what you can provide as a job and access to a job and let them build their life back together.

And that inspired me to go to the other companies and say, “Here’s an example. Here’s how it works. And let’s get together and start solving this problem by giving them employment.”

What’s your pitch to these companies?

Hamdi Ulukaya: In my opinion, the core reason for businesses to exist is to provide good services to their consumers and shareholders, but at the same time, also make the world and humanity a better place.

We tell them that when you hire refugees, they’re going to be the most loyal, they’re going to work harder, because they’ve gone through so much trouble. Within a few years, all the investment you make as a company or as a society will bring back more innovation, activity and culture to your company. You will be a better company.

And as a result we have 130 companies.

But are they really equipped to do it? Because you’re asking them not to just cut a check and give it to the U.N., you’re asking them to actually get involved in these communities at a global level.

Hamdi Ulukaya: Yeah. Hire. It’s very easy. These are all business practices. Train, innovate. All these human crises can be solved with the tools and resources businesses have.

And you think they can do it better than governments and the U.N…?

Hamdi Ulukaya: Oh, 100%. Not just refugees but also climate change, education, diversity and inclusion…These things can be solved a lot faster and a lot cheaper.

One of the solutions that you mentioned in your TED Talk recently was to change the CEO playbook. That requires a lot of cultural change. Is that practical?

Hamdi Ulukaya: You do not exist as a business only to make profits for your shareholder. You have responsibilities in your community, you have responsibilities towards your employees and their families. You have a responsibility to grow the humanity and community.

You either do it or you die. I don’t see of businesses and brands continuing to exist for generations to come with the motto of “I exist only to make money.”

Are you an anti-CEO?

Hamdi Ulukaya: I am a very anti-CEO. But that doesn’t mean I’m anti-business. I’m very anti-CEO in the way that the business is being done.

This transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

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