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What An Immigrant Yogurt Maker Told Wharton MBAs

Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya speaks at Wharton’s MBA Commencement. Youtube photo

“It’s great that you are a Wharton MBA. But please, don’t act like it.”

That was the main piece of advice at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School’s graduation of full-time MBAs on May 14. It came from Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani yogurt, which is widely considered one of the top yogurt brands in the country.

“As I wondered what to say here today, I turned to people I always turn to for wisdom and advice,” Ulukaya told an arena full of Wharton MBA graduates and their friends and families. “I asked some of the men and women who work with me at the plant at Chobani, what would be my message today.”

The message was to remain humble. Or, don’t act like a Wolf on Wall Street MBA stereotype.

“They didn’t mean it as an insult or to be funny,” Ulukaya continued. “It’s really, really wise advice. What they mean is, don’t let it be a burden on you. Don’t let it get in the way of seeing people as people and all they have to offer you, regardless of their title or their position. What my brothers and sisters at Chobani wanted me to say is that if you want to fly high in business or life, you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground and stay rooted. To see what matters the most.”

‘I STAND BEFORE YOU TODAY AN IMMIGRANT’

Ulukaya gave a brief but fascinating glimpse into the story of Chobani and his evolving view of business, its impact on communities, and what it means to rebuild a better country and planet.

“I stand before you today an immigrant,” Ulukaya said. “An immigrant from Turkey, who sold his first Greek yogurt to a kosher deli, speaking to a school founded by Quakers, in an arena whose name is Latin to graduates from 71 different countries, just three miles from where the Constitution was written. Honestly, I cannot think of anything more American than that.”

The immigrant of Kurdish descent came to the U.S. in 1994 after a humble upbringing in his native Turkey. Ulukaya recalled being raised by a family of farmers and being trained as a Shepard, where he raised animals in the mountains. His view of business then, was someone in a “high glass tower” making decisions that impacted the lives of those on the ground without input from or consideration of those people.

Ulukaya’s first stop in the U.S. was in New York City. “My journey here started like any other immigrant’s — not much of a plan,” he told the Wharton graduates. Eventually, he visited Upstate New York, which reminded him of his homeland in Turkey, so he decided to stay and start a feta cheese plant. In 2005, after three years of running the cheese plant, Ulukaya found an ad for a fully equipped, but now defunct yogurt plant. The next day, he visited the plant in South Edmeston, New York.

What Ulukaya found was a tough scene. The 55 employees of the plant were breaking apart the plant — their final task before being unemployed. “It was like somebody had died,” Ulukaya remembered. The scene also sparked a memory from Ulukaya’s past. The plant was closing “because somebody in a glass tower far away, sight unseen, decided to close it,” Ulukaya said of Kraft foods, the owner of the company. “The company wasn’t just giving up on yogurt or the plant, it was giving up on them,” he said.

FROM ZERO SALES TO MORE THAN $1 BILLION

Against the counsel of his attorney, Ulukaya purchased the plant during the summer of 2005. The first thing Ulukaya did was hire four of the 55 Kraft’s employees. When they asked him what his plan was, Ulukaya says his only idea was to go to the local hardware store, buy some paint, and paint the walls white. “Honestly, I had no other ideas than that one,” he said. But Ulukaya paraphrased a Turkish poem as part of his plan to get the factory going again. “When you start walking the way, the way appears,” he said. For the next two years, Ulukaya worked on perfecting a yogurt recipe with a “yogurt guru” he hired.

“Once I knew it was perfect, meaning, it was as good as the yogurt my mother made, we launched Chobani in late 2007,” he said.

Chobani’s first sale was a few hundred cases to a grocer on Long Island, New York. Because of the company’s tight budget, Ulukaya had to take some uncouth business strategies, like paying stores in yogurt instead of cash for them to stock his product. He also did in-store samples and tried to engage bloggers and create a social media following on Facebook and Twitter, which in 2008, was still an innovative and unique way to grow a consumer products market. In 2009, the company had a major break when BJ’s Wholesale and Costco began selling the product. In five years, Ulukaya said, the company went from 55 employees to 2,000. It went from no sales to more than $1 billion. Ulukaya went from living in a one bedroom apartment in Utica, New York to having a net worth of now almost $2 billion. “We went from nowhere to the top brand in America,” he said.

‘BY FIXING THIS PLANT, WE WOULD FIX THIS COMMUNITY’

All the while, Ulukaya said, he spent those five years working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the team. The first money they made, they spent on building a little league stadium for the community.

“By fixing this plant, we would fix this community,” Ulukaya said. “And ultimately, we would fix ourselves and find ourselves.”

And that’s where the message of not being a typical MBA comes into play.

“The Chobani journey has taught me something special,” Ulukaya said. “What matters most in business and in life, is the difference you make for other people and for your community. And for your community, your country, and for humanity.”

If that change can happen with an 85-year-old defunct yogurt plant in a town that was left behind, Ulukaya believes it can happen anywhere.

“Brothers and sisters, here’s what I have found. In every community across America and across the world, the same thing is true. There are plants that have been shut down. There are communities that have been left behind. And they are angry at the people on those high towers who gave up on them,” Ulukaya said. “But at the same time, they are waiting for somebody to believe in them, to give them a chance. Not to just build it back, but to build it back better than ever before. Everything we need to write the next great chapter for this country and this planet already exists in towns and communities. It’s just waiting to be awakened.”

That requires some atypical leadership.

“But if you believe in people you work with, and listen to them, and learn from them, and give them a reason to believe in you, everything is possible,” Ulukaya said. “That’s what the people at Chobani meant, when they said, you might be an MBA, just don’t act like one. Acknowledging the experience and wisdom of a forklift operator or a security guard with 30 years on the job doesn’t diminish your inexperience. Acknowledging the sacrifice of others that enabled you to be in this position does not diminish sacrifices that you made on your own. Be the kind of leader that others want to sacrifice for. Be good to waiters. Ask others for advice, no matter what their job is, and listen to them. Really listen to their answers.”

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