Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of Greek yogurt brand Chobani, is showing the world – including Christians – how to treat refugees. Since 2007, he has hired hundreds of refugees from all over the world, and currently employs over 300 refugees across his company.
In a cultural moment when more refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean than ever before, Ulukaya has, in the words of a recent Global Citizen article, an astonishing amount of moral clarity:
“He understands that refugees are fleeing tremendous hardship and just want to be given a chance to begin or resume a normal, healthy life. His workers have escaped death. They’ve seen family members get killed or have been forever separated from their families. They’ve endured years of uncertainty and fear. Now, they just want to be normal.”
A Kurd from Turkey, Ulukaya knows what’s it like to be oppressed. Despite significant backlash against hiring refugees in the US, he continues to advocate for refugees and give them job opportunities as a way to rebuild their lives.
Ulukaya’s story has a certain allure: born to a family that operated a small sheep, goat and dairy farm in Ilic (Erzincan Province) in Turkey, he came to the US in 1994 to study English and take a few business courses. He started a feta-cheese factory, and then took a big risk in buying a defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York in 2005. His goal was to produce a yogurt without preservatives, artificial flavors or gelatins – more akin to the quality and natural yogurt he grew up with Turkey as opposed to the sugary and watery yogurts he found in America.
Over the next 5 years, Chobani – from the Turkish word for “shepherd” – would take off. In less than five years, his company would be valued at over $1 billion and is now the leading yogurt brand in the US.
Ulukaya clearly values philanthropy. He’s signed Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge, committing to give away over half of his fortune during his lifetime or in his will. But on September 29, 2015, at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, he also urged business people to do more than “just write checks” to help alleviate the suffering of refugees.
For example, he believes in paying his employees higher wages, noting that not only is treating employees better for the company, but also states that, “for the sake of our communities and our people, we need to give other companies the ability to create a better life for more people.” He even gave his 2,000 employees an ownership stake in the company. When Chobani is sold or goes public, they’ll receive shares up to 10% of the company’s values. The move could make the employees on his manufacturing floor millionaires.
In an interview with Ernst and Young Global Chairman & CEO Mark Weinberger, he unabashedly said, “Business is still the strongest, most effective way to change the world.”
Here in Denver, James Rudder, CEO of L&R Pallet, has hired hundreds of refugees from Myanmar. Other Christians have followed suit with campaigns for charitable giving to help refugees throughout the world. But after a conversation recently with an investor and business leader in Denver, whom I deeply admire, I can safely say that we Christians have a long way to go to in seeing business – not just charitable giving – as an opportunity to serve the needs of our world. We could learn a lot from Ulukaya and his moral example.
A challenge to all of us in the US: Could we hire more refugees in our companies in the US? Could we intentionally start companies abroad to help the 65.3 million refugees in the world today? More broadly, how could our hiring practices reflect God’s heart of compassion for the poor, the foreigner, the widow and orphan?
One thing’s for sure: after learning about Ulukaya and Chobani, next time I go to the grocery store my wife and I will be stocking up on Greek yogurt.
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This post was published February 6, 2017
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.