Jess Search speaks with Hamdi Ulukaya at the Skoll World Forum 2017 #SkollWF 2017

Jess Search speaks with Hamdi Ulukaya at the Skoll World Forum 2017 #SkollWF 2017

And our next guest is one
of the most exciting businessmen whose work is helping to make
that necessity a reality. He’s a brilliant entrepreneur. When he arrived
in America at the age of just twenty-two, he spoke very little English and had
only a few thousand dollars in his pocket. In fact, I believe he even milked cows
at one point to pay his way through college. Today he is the founder of the multi-billion
dollar yogurt enterprise Chobani. Yeah that alone, and he’s not sure he’ll call
himself a social entrepreneur but we’ll talk about that
when he comes out here. But he does say the business is still
the most effective way to change the world, and his mission with Chobani
is to inspire a new way of business, a new way of work and
a new way of innovation. Skoll World Forum, please welcome
Hamdi from Chobani. So Hamdi, you studied political science
Ankara University and I think that means I can throw you right in the deep
end with a really big question which is ‘How does capitalism
need to change?’ I could be understood that you couldn’t change it
with politics, you could change it with yogurt. So, and I love that and
then start making yogurt. Just let me tell you this, this is, I prayed about this but I never
thought it was gonna be this. And Jess, thank you. This is amazing. The energy here, and I’ve been to very energy
places but this is what we look for today. This is what we need, this is what we’ve…
like a, like a thirsty person in the desert, this is the human spirit that needed and I am so glad
to be here so thank you very much for inviting me. You’re so welcome. Look I, interest me as a businessman,
I hated cereals and I hated rich growing up. I’m a son of a shepherd, a nomad.
I grew up, up in the mountains. A beautiful life growing up in the mountains
and making cheese and yogurt. and coming back to our village,
growing up as a Kurdish. And we would see the rich and their behavior
and the businesses, lush companies and it didn’t align what my mother was teaching
so I never thought I would end up becoming this. I never thought I would
get involved with business. I would always think of myself to be other side
and when I was building my work, the only thing that I wanted to do is I don’t
want to be the one who I grow up hating. So how do I do that? So every day there’s
a quality check that you do and say, “Okay, have I become that one yet?? And I haven’t, I haven’t publicly
said this many times except my colleagues that I work with in the plant
last time we did the Chobani shares. Now I’ll say it here, it’s very private
because I’m really inspired. I put my Mom’s… you know, in Kurdish tradition
you put some head scarf in the head and she had a green one that, the day that she passed
away and I always hold on to it and Lewis knows. On my Chobani hat
I always put that under. For years and for as much as
I remember when I start Chobani. The reason I did that is, if I get drunk,
if I, if I lose the way it is, and if there’s nobody can correct me,
there’s only one person could correct me. That would be my Mom so if I carry that in here,
I know I could go wrong but she would teach me otherwise. We need, we need powerful people not
only relatives but powerful people in our life to keep us right because
in the end, those ideas are right. What Winnie said is 100% right. But when you are in the world
of business, entrepreneurship and social interpretation, whatever it is,
you can engage with money. And then you get engaged with power, you get
engaged with fame, you get engaged with a lot of stuff and it’s very easy to lose
the sight of it and I have. Then you are in search of someone to come to tell you,
‘Okay you’ve got to come to the right place’. And then the business is fun. And you ask me outside why you don’t
call yourself a social entrepreneur and I met Bill this morning who are the founder
of the idea and hundreds of them. Of course I would be honored
to be called social entrepreneurship. But what we have to do and I am just
gonna stop there, is it’s okay to be angry. I love things but I am also,
I hate things too. But also we need to channel
that into right place. And I didn’t want Chobani organization to become
like a idea of a church or and NGO or anything like that. I wanted it to be a competitive innovator and I’m angry about the competitor doing wrong
which is for us is the big food and you know, the type of a CEO or president
or whatever they call themselves and, and being angry about it
and to channel that to a certain way and you’ve been in the market place,
the good people has to win. He thinks we’re so much nicer you think…
so much nicer. We’re angry, right guys? So then I’m social entrepreneur. Okay. You’re in. Let’s talk about your response
to the refugee crisis. It’s something which you’ve been involved
in both as a philanthropist and as businessman. And I think that’s really interesting.
We have heard when you sang charity cannot be the only response to these
problems and I feel like you’ve come at that in both ways because you donated
$2 million to NHCR and you’ve also made a pledge to give away
more of your wealth to the issue. But you’ve also really tried to embed response
to that into your business itself. I think that currently four hundred of your employees,
one-fifth of your employees, are refugees. Do you want to speak to how you got
involved and what your philosophy is? Sure. You know, starting with Chobani
I started in upstate New York, a little town and the factory
was closed after 90 years. And the way I started is five factory
workers and myself; and a little anecdote there is the first board meeting
I had was for all Kraft workers and myself. And the first board meeting we decided
that we’re going to paint the wall outside. It hasn’t been painted for 25 years, right so, and the guy one of them said ‘Hamdi, that’s fine we’ll
do that but tell me you have more ideas than that’. Honest to God I did not have
any other idea. And these guys are gonna bet on me to not to move
or look for any other jobs to just lost a job and I was the only Turkish guy,
Kurdish, Turkish whatever, and in that town they had not seen
a guy like me before. And time passes you start a business,
it’s moving, you’re adding people and I hired all the people that left Kraft at that
time, they lost their jobs, they came back. That was fifty-five and then
we became hundred and then we became the two hundred
and then we expanded our geography. And I lived in Utica which was about
30 miles north of that little town and I heard that there are refugees
that settled in this town, that they were having a very
tough time finding a job. And we were expanding and you know, I hired
everyone in that area and I’m looking more and I… I went to the refugee center and it was true,
it was one of settlement place and I said “What’s the problem?”
They said, “Well” couple. One is they’re different.
The people are not used to it yet. Second is language. They don’t speak English
well and another one is transportation. So they don’t have drivers’ license
to be able to drive’ and I said ‘Look’… there were a few some others. I said,
‘Look well, we can hire translators and we can put buses,
and we can train them.’ And we did. And those simple solutions we start
hiring them. They come and… I mean, amazing. So today in South [inaudible] and I did
the same thing in Idaho, in Twin Falls. Proudly we have nineteen different nationalities
in our company that comes from different, different part
of the world as refugee and… One beautiful thing is we created
this beautiful community in this plants and people built
their life making yogurt. And the friendship and this beautiful relationship
that among the locals and the people from…. you know, some are from Myanmar,
some are from Somalia, some are from Syria and watching this whole thing
to happen in front of your eye and this is not something we’ve done last
year or year before, it’s been in it forever. And when the Syrian crisis went into up
into the [inaudible] I saw this picture, I think it was in New York Times,
that this Yizidi woman were, hands were up in the air
and I know the face. I’m from the region. I know the whole
[inaudible] burning is going in her heart. And you can tell many
people are following and she is going towards the mountains when
they get attacked and they lost everything. That was a calling for me and
then I got personally involved. I created a foundation called Tent and
I did the [inaudible] that Jeff did and it became my reason
of doing what I’m doing. And I’ve learnt a lot since then. I was conscious about the crisis of refugee
but I’d no idea there was 65 million people. I’d no idea the average refugee
lives in a camp for 17 years. I’d no idea that every year [inaudible] and some
other organizations runs out of food and runs out of money to provide food
and shelter, the basic, basic needs. I had no idea that people who lives
in those conditions are hopeless and they have lack of education
and human rights and unemployment. So all that stuff and I saw hard-working heroic-working
of the aid workers on the field which I visited. But I also saw bureaucracy, I saw waste, I saw a lot of,
lot of waste of time and money and I said ‘We have to bring this entrepreneurship
way into this’ We have to come in and we have
to bring the more business world and I reached out to other
CEOs and colleagues and today we have seventy amazing
companies that pledge their either their ability, their money or their technology
to come in and tackle this problem. You sort of let that go by.
I really want to underline that. Sorry yeah, because people are beginning
to applaud but I think those that know the story because you basically went
to Davos and you said… you said that it was mind-blowing how little companies were doing
to provide employment for refugees. And you urged other companies to join you
and you grew that you know in cohort and now yes you’re at seventy and this
includes some really big companies too. This is a huge achievement.
Sorry, now you can applaud him. Yeah I mean it is, it is … what I look at it I think one of the most urgent
crisis that humanity is facing is this problem. I mean we have other problems;
you know, Bono is a great example of how you start from somewhere
and look at where [inaudible] and corruption and other issues
that he’s dealing with. It is the branding, it is the approach,
it is the elevation of the issue above the politics area to the area
of every single individual can understand. And I trust that everyone of us are good people.
We just have to find a way to connect that, that energy to the problem and
if we don’t fix that what will happen? Safety is gonna be a problem.
You know we might make it to the Mars but if we leave those people behind,
this world cannot go any further. Humanity will not further and if you have
a little girl who just pass through the ocean plus the little brother and made it to a tent,
and this is real things that happening, and if we’re watching that and
celebrating their going to the Mars, I don’t know if that is the humanity
we’re all looking for. And I know that we’re
all aligning that idea. We just have to work harder and we just have to work
faster because this issue has no time to waste. And the world it is that we’re going
have you talking about the walls, we just said the not
the walls, the bridges, I truly believe every single
person, one person either works or time or money or whatever
that is, it adds up and it becomes something. And if it comes from the right direction,
like direction that comes from here, it is so powerful that it can grow so fast,
that we can overcome all the problems and I know it because I’ve done it. I started with five people and we elevated ourself
into this idea that we could create something else. In five years we’ve done something
that never been done before. It’s the human spirit that needs to be lifted up
and I truly believe that you can do that. Thank you. Can you speak a bit more about
your relationship with your workers? Because to… to win his point
about challenging inequality, the sense of workers needing to have a stake
which you said in the work that they do, I know that’s something that you have been thinking
about and you’ve shared some equity already. And I wondered if you could
speak to that philosophy? Same thoughts of what we talked
about and we already talked about, is… I studied there and I watched
how we built this wealth and the factory worker who
I studied with, is okay. I paid twice more than
everybody else did. I had 401k, I had health issues almost all
of it paid and I had bonuses, all that stuff. Still, I’m making a calculation and when I made
the calculation is how they gonna buy the house, how they’re going to afford the gas and how
they’re gonna get food for their children that is good. And then later how are they going to retire.
The math just doesn’t make any sense. and it would be unfair to watch that this
most beautiful thing is being created from the ashes of the others and not to see
others to benefit from it as much as it is. And it click me in the beginning and I had this
in a long time. You know what the challenge was? The law. Believe it or not the most difficult
part for I’d worked for two years to not to be treated as a public company because I had two thousand people
and I want to make everybody a partner, not to be treated as a public company
and give my shares to my employees. And I had to spend millions
to be able to do that. So it’s very…the system is not allowing you to be able
to do that and needs to be changed completely. And… And today you know, I have 2,000
partners and it is, it is not a gift. It is the recognition of what’s right.
That’s how I see it. There are definitely people here who are very
interested in changing those kinds of systems. In fact, the chaps that invented
the B Corp as a mechanism are amongst the Skoll Foundation grantees. They’re probably here so maybe that’s
something which a connection can be made to make the model that you’ve discovered
more widely available for other people. But I want to… I want to just quickly go back
to your childhood and teenage years. You kind of said it very quickly at the beginning
that you grew up in a family. You were working with
the cheese-making business. You said it very quickly but I just
wanted to spend another moment there. What were your teenage years like? Were you…were your Saturday
chores just totally out of control? Being born into a small family
business in eastern Turkey? Yeah. It’s nomadic life, it’s up in the mountains
and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t go back for a moment,
that I don’t make that connection. It could be I don’t know, leaves coming
from the tree or and then just…. a wind hits you in a different direction
or somebody looks like somebody. You always have a connection to your
past and I always remember my past, that simple life as my source
of everything I do in the life. And that’s the thing, the immigrants, immigrants
as myself including refugees, when we come we bring something with us
to another place. And I think… No, you brought mad yogurt skills,
#madyogurtskills, Hashtag…. Culture. You know, we do. And by the Euphrates River, mountains of Munzur and
I don’t exactly know exactly which day I was born, I know it’s October because
as nomad we were coming down and you’re coming back from the mountains about
end of September or early October, mid October. So here’s… I’ll give you one
example how it was. I’m not saying we didn’t have issues.
People fought and all that stuff. But there was this sense of security that in the barn
if there was a fire, and if you lost all your sheep, let’s say you had two hundred of them and that’s
what you live on and your family support on, you know that the next morning everybody is going
to take one of their best sheep and bring it to you. And in the end you’re
gonna have 200 sheep. And nobody is gonna burn their barn but they
know that’s gonna happen if that happens. And that’s the social security,
that’s one that you know that if you’re down there’s somebody, even the person that you fought,
couple of years ago you had argument, there was the social pressure
and order that it will bring it to you. And you would live in the mountains
under the tent and the mens were the shepherds
to go up in the mountains and there was womens and kids
and you know that you were secure under those stars
with maybe one dog and not because you had guns or
anything else because you knew that, just in this order, in this social
order you would be safe. And that’s where I left it and….
That’s very human economy. Yeah, that’s very human economy.
And that’s where we have to… that’s where we have to come
in and the tagline is here, is how did we create that social
trust in every individual, every child and whatever in the world
that if I am down, somebody is out there in the world, is cares
about me and is gonna bring the head. And you know it exists. You just have to multiply
and I think it has to change its form to become more, I don’t want
to use the word aggressive, but maybe little bit louder, little bit
more aggressive, little bit more…. Because otherwise this is not just being good
or right, this is just being more profitable. This is just being better living. This is just being… You can add on to this and then you say,
“Hey investor, you can make money on this too.” If you only care about this, you can care.
And we do need scholars, we do need thinkers, we do need
all leaders of social elements. But God, we need businesses to step up. Because we have tried all
the different government models. You know we have and I have believed in one
of them in the past. I do believe in free market. I really do. I really do that. It’s needed and
I really do think that it moves humanity forward. And if we fill that model with these people,
you’re in heaven. That’s how I believe. I wanna be in heaven with you Hamdi.
Sounds pretty good to me. Make yogurt, yup! We’ve run out of time
but before I let you go in the same Oxfam shop I had
to pick something up for you too. Jemima and I, and because we know
that you’re gonna join Winnie and I as a great defender of the rights of women and girls too,
we bought you a pink tie in the Oxfam shop. Oh my God!
Purple suit and pink tie! Please, give Hamdi a huge
round of applause!

3 thoughts on “Jess Search speaks with Hamdi Ulukaya at the Skoll World Forum 2017 #SkollWF 2017


  2. An entrepreneur who has adapted the positive value of socialism into business. He should be the role model of next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders. I am really proud of him as I see such kind of great personality with trust and dignity in business who I hoped to see for long years.

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