Eye On: Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya
November 18, 2015
Chobani yogurt founder Hamdi Ulukaya said that his mother’s generosity toward those in need seeded an early interest in philanthropy. Even the company name reflects his native Turkish roots. Chobani is the Turkish word for “shepherd,” and Chobani has said that the moniker is an homage to the “spirit of giving farmers.”
“Growing up, I watched my mother give to those who needed and it came from the most amazing place in her heart,” Ulukaya said in his Giving Pledge letter, whereby individuals pledge to give away the majority of their wealth during their lifetime. Upon joining the Giving Pledge in June 2015, he dedicated his Pledge commitment to his mother.
In addition to family, peer influence also played a part in Ulukaya’s decision to make a “public commitment” to help refugees. In his letter, the New York resident praised Bill Gates and Warren Buffet for setting an example for global philanthropy. Ulukaya is among 138 Giving Pledge participants in 16 countries.
“I hope that my commitment to the Giving Pledge will in turn inspire others to do the same,” Ulukaya said in his letter.
- Founder, Chairman and CEO of Chobani yogurt
- Kurdish American entrepreneur and businessman
- Ernst & Young’s 2013 World Entrepreneur of the Year
- Founder of the Chobani Foundation, which focuses on youth and underserved communities, and entrepreneurs and small business owners
- Founder of the Tent Foundation, which provides direct aid to refugees and advocates for refugee rights and policies
- Personal net worth is over $1 billion
The Giving Pledge marked Ulukaya’s public commitment to donate the majority of his personal wealth to helping refugees and finding a solution to this humanitarian crisis.
Earlier this year, the 43-year-old launched the Tent Foundation to specifically provide direct aid, effect policy changes and develop strategies to help 50 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. His foundation aims to collaborate with worldwide governments and organizations.
The magic and power of the American dream is something I believe should be available to everyone.
Since the early days of founding his Greek yogurt empire, Ulukaya has donated 10% of his profits to the Chobani Foundation, which focuses on access to food for youth and underserved communities, and supporting entrepreneurs and small business owners.
In 2013, the Chobani Foundation distributed $624,920 to 17 organizations in the United States, Canada and England, according to the foundation’s 2013 990 Form, a form that certain federally tax-exempt organizations file with the IRS. The largest gift of $285,630 helped establish the South Edmeston Community Center in Edmeston, New York, and the city that is also home of Chobani’s first yogurt factory.
Other gifts included $100,000 to the Canadian-based Global Enrichment Foundation, which supports leadership in Somalia through educational and community-based empowerment programs; $92,230 for the Halabja Community Playground Project, a London-based charity that built an adventure playground for children in Halabja, Northern Iraq; and $25,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Magic Valley in Twin Falls, Idaho. The Idaho city boasts a Chobani factory, which opened in 2012 as the world’s largest yogurt factory.
While studying English in New York in 1994, the Turkish immigrant became fascinated by the idea that “anyone can start something in America,” he said in his letter. By 1997, Ulukaya enrolled in business courses at the State University of New York.
“The magic and power of the American dream is something I believe should be available to everyone—and is part of my hope for a modern Turkey and for entrepreneurs around the world,” Ulukaya said.
I believe that as people who have been blessed with opportunity in our own lives we must give hope to others.”
Growing up in a hardworking communal culture in Turkey, Hamdi Ulukaya used his background as a Kurdish dairy farmer to cultivate his entrepreneurial dream into a billion-dollar reality. In 2002, he started a modest feta-cheese factory.
In 2005, Ulukaya took a risk purchasing a defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York and launched Chobani. In October 2007, he shipped his first Chobani yogurt order to a Long Island grocer.
Relying on his entrepreneurial skills, the savvy Ulukaya negotiated with supermarket retailers to pay the slotting fees – the fee to place product on retailer shelves - over time and also in yogurt rather than cash. He also relied on social media to promote Chobani. Within five years, Chobani grew into a billion-dollar business.
In his Giving Pledge letter, Ulukaya pointed out the benefits that entrepreneurship has on impacting community change, including his own success. His foundations provide local and global grants.
“I believe that as people who have been blessed with opportunity in our own lives we must give hope to others,” Ulukaya said.