Five years after Hamdi Ulukaya bought an abandoned yogurt plant in upstate New York, his company—Chobani—is making $1 billion in revenue. It's the kind of capitalist success story that conservatives typically love. But instead, Ulukaya has recently become the target of alt-right sites like Breitbart News, which is calling for a boycott because some of his employees are refugees.
As Ulukaya explained today at Fast Company's Innovation Festival, he thinks helping refugees get jobs is just the right thing to do at a time when there are more displaced people than ever before in history.
"We're looking at this landscape in the world today, and it doesn't matter where you are—in upstate New York, Turkey, Germany, whatever—you just cannot sit still," Ulukaya said, comparing the world's reaction to refugees now to what Jews faced when trying to flee Europe in World War II, when they were turned away from many countries where they tried to find safety.
When the company first launched in the small town of Norwich, New York, Ulukaya learned that many refugees—from Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, and elsewhere—had been resettled in the area. He reached out to the resettlement center to offer work, and then offered new employees translators and English-language classes, and even transportation to get to the plant.
In Idaho, where large numbers of refugees have been resettled since Vietnamese refugees first arrived in the 1970s, where Chobani built a new plant, the company wanted to continue its policy of hiring refugees, along with others in the community. Ulukaya shared the story of two sisters who escaped Afghanistan as teenagers when their father was killed; they were forced to leave their mother behind. After they were resettled in Idaho, they got jobs at the yogurt plant, and later an apartment, and a car. One became a manager at the factory; their lives were permanently changed.
"These are two stories," he said. "I have 600 stories. These are all human beings . . . The business community can play a dominant role in this."
Earlier this year, Ulukaya launched Tent, a personal foundation focused on engaging the private sector to help refugees. Extremist websites have claimed that Chobani was "importing 300 Muslims at a time" to Idaho and stealing jobs from U.S.-born workers. In fact, the company plays no role in resettling refugees and is creating even more jobs for non-refugee community members. Right now, refugees make up about 30% of the company's workforce.
If Chobani is a leader in showing how business can work with refugees, it's equally innovative in helping improve life for all of its employees—and showing how manufacturing can be successful in the U.S. today. The company gave 10% of its shares to factory workers, rewarding plant employees for Chobani's massive success. New mothers and new fathers get six weeks of paid parental leave.
Ulukaya wants to help close the massive income gap between the rich and the poor—something that he thinks business may be able to do where government policy hasn't succeeded.
"We have tried all different government types in the world. We have tried all the different economic solutions . . . but what we haven't tried is this free market and business community making everybody part of the success," he says. "If we do that, then ordinary people are going to feel like business owners, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and innovators, are one of them . . . It has never been this important in human history that business owners and innovators are not disconnected from human life, and definitely not disconnected from their own employees and communities."
Ulukaya hopes to inspire other companies to do better, from working with refugees in their communities to sharing the companies' success. "I promise you if it can be done with yogurt in a tiny village in upstate New York, with a guy who has never had experience, it can be done anywhere," he says.