JOEL WEBER: Hamdi, you’re a Turkish Kurd who came to the U.S. and became a billionaire selling Greek yogurt to Americans. What other food could have taken you on such a journey? HAMDI ULUKAYA: I cannot imagine anything that could replace the magic of yogurt, which transcends cultures and lands. Tea, maybe? And what is it about yogurt?
I go back to my childhood in Turkey. That’s where this journey started. It didn’t matter if you were poor or rich, you couldn’t imagine a table without yogurt. It’s something that represents equality, nature, nutrition. I always missed it when I got here— living in upstate New York, I always thought, “Where is that yogurt? It can’t be so hard to make.” And I was also sad that such a simple food was absent on kitchen tables here in the U.S. This has been such a challenging year. What lessons have guided you?
That life is fragile. That we could make long-term plans but, you know, life brings surprises—some good and some not so good. That human fundamentals are what matter most, and sometimes we don’t talk about it. We don’t acknowledge it—it’s just there. And I think this pandemic brought a consciousness to those fundamentals. In business, fundamentals are, for us, the culture. And you don’t build cultures for defensive reasons. You do it because that’s the way you want to live. But it turns out, the most powerful engines during this time are these unspoken rules. This motion just takes over, and everything operates. Chobani got its start with a loan from the Small Business Administration. What more should the U.S. be doing right now to support small businesses?
I think every effort. Whether you believe in government help or not, [we need to] do everything to keep these places open and help them through this pandemic. We shouldn’t be shy about it—we should be all for it. Small businesses are the engine for the economy: They become tomorrow’s large companies and innovators. And they are devastated. We as consumers, we have to be conscious of that and act accordingly. Buy locally, buy locally online, and show up—go to your local stores. In the past decade, America has lost thousands of small dairy farms. The economics are just awful; the suicides of dairy farmers have been especially troubling.
How can we help the industry and these vulnerable farmers?
I grew up on a farm, and I worked on a farm when I arrived here. Seeing that small farmers, many of them multigenerational, are going through this— it’s heartbreaking and alarming. So what happens? They close down. And then what happens? Some of the farmers, they get larger.
A lot of farmers do this work not because it’s profitable; they do it because they love it. They do it because that’s what they learned from their fathers, their grandmothers. It’s a tradition they hold and advance, and they exist in these places where hard work is essential and respected.
At Chobani, we know we also have to make conditions on the farms align with today’s and tomorrow’s consumers. We started Milk Matters about a year ago, drafting a coalition with farms, universities, and fair trade where tomorrow’s farms and farm conditions can be designed. Otherwise, we are moving forward with these really tough conditions, and that would be bad for society. Between upstate New York, where Chobani started, and Idaho, where you’ve expanded, you have intimate relationships with rural America. What do you want others to know about these communities they might be missing?
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