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Immigrant yogurt mogul shares his wealth


Friday, June 10, 2016

Hamdi Ulukaya was born into a semi-nomadic, dairy-farming family in 1972. Ulukaya is uncertain of the exact date, because the family was on one of their regular mountain treks in the Kurdish region of Turkey, following their dairy herds from pasture to pasture, when his mother gave birth. This son of nomadic Kurdish farmers immigrated to the United States to finish his education, studying English at SUNY Albany, ended up staying and became a billionaire. Last month, he gave away 10 percent of the company – to his employees.
 
Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, the current best-selling yogurt brand in the U.S., spent his years after college struggling to break even by importing and selling, and eventually manufacturing, his family’s feta cheese. Against the judgment of advisors, in 2005, Ulukaya bought a defunct yogurt factory in South Edmeston, New York. Less than five years later, the upstart brand, Chobani, had gone from inception to more than $1 billion in annual sales.
 
Continuing its market leadership, Chobani made Ulukaya a billionaire. In April, Ulukaya announced that he would distribute shares of the company to the 2,000 full-time employees of its New York plant, based on tenure. This, in turn, could make some of his employees very wealthy. According to the letter employees received, the distribution was not “a gift. It’s a mutual promise to work together with a shared purpose and responsibility. To continue to create something special and of lasting value.”
 
Such generosity is not news to those who are familiar with Ulukaya. Many of the employees who received ownership in his company were themselves refugees, fleeing violence and oppression in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. For more than half a decade, Chobani has made a practice of hiring refugees who came to the U.S. seeking shelter and community.
 
As the Syrian refugee crisis escalated, in 2014, Ulukaya donated $2 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees. Last year, he founded an organization called Tent to help refugees find support and resettle. Ulukaya also announced that he would give away most of his wealth, via Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffet’s The Giving Pledge, to help refugees across the globe.
 
Like his U.S. workers, Ulukaya was not highly-skilled when he arrived in the country. However, like so many other immigrants, he had an entrepreneurial fire that drove him to succeed. His life experiences, growing up as a Kurd in Eastern Turkey, also gave him a passion for humanitarianism and taught him to value those who helped him on his path to success.
 
Ulukaya finished his education in the U.S. and was able to stay. Because of this, thousands of refugees are safer and hundreds of American workers are more financially secure.

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