A few contributors on this platform are children of immigrants. Some are immigrants. And we love Greek yogurt. And we love a good shepherd to riches story. So, why not celebrate one of our own, so to speak?
A Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent, Mr. Ulukaya brought Greek yogurt to the mainstream. Along the way, he began hiring refugees, a move that drew threats from fringe websites and far-right commentators.
Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States in 1994 with $3,000 in his pocket. He was an immigrant from Turkey, hoping to learn English and find his way in a new country.
Today, Mr. Ulukaya is a billionaire. Chobani, the Greek yogurt maker he founded in 2007, has annual sales of about $1.5 billion, and Mr. Ulukaya owns most of the privately held company.
After starting a small business buying feta cheese, Mr. Ulukaya bought an abandoned yogurt factory in upstate New York. A few years later, Chobani was flying off the shelves. As the company grew, Mr. Ulukaya began hiring refugees, a move that landed him in a spat with Breitbart News and Infowars.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted as part of the TimesTalks Festival in New York this spring.
What was your childhood like?
I’m from the eastern part of Turkey. It’s Colorado weather — snow, mountains and then a beautiful spring. I grew up with shepherds. We were nomads. We would go up in the mountains with herds of sheep and goats and cows, and make yogurt and cheese, and then come back in the winter to the village.
There was this sense of being part of community that gave so much security and safety. We grew up not worrying about anything, basically. Money didn’t mean much because up in the mountains there was nothing you could buy with it. If a wolf attacked your herds, and you lost all of your sheep, each family would bring one. And the next day you would have all your sheep back. There’s not a day goes by I don’t travel back to my childhood.
How did you find your way to the United States?
I went to a boarding school where you would become a teacher in the end. And I didn’t finish it, and I left. I was being a Kurdish activist and stuff, getting in trouble with the government. And one day I said: “I should leave. I should go somewhere in Europe. This is not livable anymore.” And one stranger said, “Why don’t you go to America?” Until that person told me, I never thought about it. We thought America was the source of all the problems in the world. Imperialist and all that kind of stuff. But I went to university, they gave me a visa, and in 1994 I was here, with a little bag and $3,000 in my pocket.
How did you get into business?
My father came here and said: “You should make cheese here. There’s no good feta cheese here.” And I said: “Why would I do that? I didn’t come from 2,000 miles away to make exactly what we were making back home.”
Then it was two years of struggle. I thought I was going out of business every single day. There was a creek right next to this little plant, and I would go there and cry and cry and cry. I’m like: “Why did I get into this? And how am I going to pay for these people? How am I going to pay for the milk?”
So how did you start Chobani?
I saw an ad for a fully equipped yogurt plant for sale, asking for $700,000. Kraft was closing it. I literally threw the ad into the garbage can. It’s mixed with all my tea remainings and cigarettes. And about 30 minutes later, I picked it back up and called my lawyer.
My lawyer said: “They’re looking for an idiot to unload this on. They probably have so many environmental issues. If they thought the plant was anything, they wouldn’t have closed it. And if they thought yogurt was a good business to get in, they would not have got out of it.”
But I couldn’t sleep. I called him back and said, “I don’t know what it is, but I feel like I can do something with this.” And we made it happen. By Aug. 17, 2005, I had this key for the factory…
Read the whole story here.