Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani Talks Greek Yogurt and the American Dream

Here is an excerpt from another brilliant interview of Hamdi Ulukaya by David Gelles. A Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent, Ulukaya brought Greek yogurt to the mainstream. Along the way, he began hiring refugees, a move that drew threats from fringe websites and far-right commentators.To read the complete interview and check out other resources, please click here.

Credit: Cole Wilson for The New York Times

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Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and chief executive of Chobani, arrived in the United States 24 years ago with $3,000 to his name. He now runs a company with annual sales of $1.5 billion.CreditCole Wilson for The New York Times

Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States in 1994 with $3,000 in his pocket. He was an immigrant from Turkey, hoping to learn English and find his way in a new country.

Today, Mr. Ulukaya is a billionaire. Chobani, the Greek yogurt maker he founded in 2007, has annual sales of about $1.5 billion, and Mr. Ulukaya owns most of the privately held company.

After starting a small business buying feta cheese, Mr. Ulukaya bought an abandoned yogurt factory in upstate New York. A few years later, Chobani was flying off the shelves. As the company grew, Mr. Ulukaya began hiring refugees, a move that landed him in a spat with Breitbart News and Infowars.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted as part of the TimesTalks Festival in New York this spring.

What was your childhood like?

I’m from the eastern part of Turkey. It’s Colorado weather — snow, mountains and then a beautiful spring. I grew up with shepherds. We were nomads. We would go up in the mountains with herds of sheep and goats and cows, and make yogurt and cheese, and then come back in the winter to the village.

There was this sense of being part of community that gave so much security and safety. We grew up not worrying about anything, basically. Money didn’t mean much because up in the mountains there was nothing you could buy with it. If a wolf attacked your herds, and you lost all of your sheep, each family would bring one. And the next day you would have all your sheep back. There’s not a day goes by I don’t travel back to my childhood.

How did you find your way to the United States?

I went to a boarding school where you would become a teacher in the end. And I didn’t finish it, and I left. I was being a Kurdish activist and stuff, getting in trouble with the government. And one day I said: “I should leave. I should go somewhere in Europe. This is not livable anymore.” And one stranger said, “Why don’t you go to America?” Until that person told me, I never thought about it. We thought America was the source of all the problems in the world. Imperialist and all that kind of stuff. But I went to university, they gave me a visa, and in 1994 I was here, with a little bag and $3,000 in my pocket.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, and works with the Well team to expand The Times‘s coverage of meditation.

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

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