“Chobani” means shepherd in Turkish. For Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of popular US based food company Chobani, this simple name alludes to his childhood, raised in a dairy-farming family in a small village in the hills of eastern Turkey.
But in recent years, the name “Chobani” has taken on symbolic meaning beyond the dictionary definition. Ulukaya has become something of a corporate shepherd, leading by example and stewarding the business community toward more ethical and sustainable practices.
It’s for these reasons and more that Ulukaya has been named the first-ever winner of the Global Citizen Business Leader Prize, at the inaugural Global Citizen Prize award ceremony in London.
He’s passionate about working conditions for his employees and the communities supporting his business — including introducing fully paid parental leave; donating food, volunteer hours, and grants to strengthen the rural communities near his plants in Central New York and Idaho; and working to improve childhood nutrition and wellness across America.
He’s also hired hundreds of refugees and immigrants who were struggling to find work; boldly champions refugees and marginalized communities; pays his employees far more than the minimum wage; and even launched Chobani Shares, an initiative to give employees the opportunity to share in the growth of Chobani over time.
Held at the Royal Albert Hall on Dec. 13, the Global Citizen Prize exists to honor those individuals across different sectors — from businesses, to world leaders, to artists — who have dedicated themselves to achieving justice and equality for all.
“There is an idea out there that the sole purpose of business is to make money," he told the assembled crowd of Global Citizens. "Honestly, that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever come across."
"We, as citizens, must take a side," he continued. "On climate change, on income equality, on gun violence… There are 25 million people who sleep tonight in muddy tents at refugee camps. The message for business is simple: Don’t pity them, hire them!”
For Ulukaya, the decisions he’s made to support his employees, local communities, and the global fight for equality, might cost him more, but he believes they lead to a higher quality business in which everyone who contributes gets taken care of.
The company’s success speaks for itself. In less than five years, Chobani went from having a handful of customers to becoming the No.1-selling Greek Yogurt brand in the United States — making it one of the fastest-growing food companies of the last decade.
“Look, my background is a working-class background,” he told the New York Times in an interview. “And in the early days, I was a factory worker. One of my first dreams was to make this company a place where everybody’s a partner, and they deserved a portion of what they have helped build. So I made a calculation. If you make $7 or $8 or $9 an hour, you can’t have a house. You can’t have good food for your kids. Forget going on vacation. The math just doesn’t make sense.”
“And I look at it from the bigger perspective,” he added. “Especially for rural communities, I don’t see any other way of finding a long-term solution than businesses stepping up, for their own employees and especially for their own communities. We have to start worrying about our own employees, their families and their children’s well-being, and the school, and the firehouse, and the baseball field.”
Ulukaya isn’t just concerned with making Chobani a shining example of corporate behavior. He wants other companies to follow suit.
He started the nonprofit Tent Partnership for Refugees to get companies to go beyond philanthropy, and encourage them to help refugees by including them in their core business operations.
Tent urges the business community to make meaningful commitments that improve the lives and livelihoods of the nearly 26 million people worldwide who have been displaced from their home countries. In one example, insurance company Generali Group committed to helping 500 refugees start businesses by 2020; in another, furniture giant IKEA is encouraging hundreds of refugees to join their workforce by helping them develop new skills.
Ulukaya’s compassion is a guiding force inside and outside of the boardroom.
“Silence is criminal these days,” he told the Times. “Being silent is as bad as if you’re doing the bad thing, especially when you are representing a company, representing a brand, representing a community. You have to get involved. You have to raise your voice, and you have to take a stand. We can’t solve all the problems, but we have to make sure that we stand for something.”
Chobani has also been named as one of Fortune’s “Change the World” list of companies; has been honored with a Salute to Greatness Award by the Marting Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change; and named one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality” by the Human Rights Campaign.
In 2015, Ulukaya also joined the Giving Pledge, vowing to donate a majority of his wealth to helping refugees around the globe.
In his statement, he said he was dedicating his signing of the Giving Pledge to his mother, adding: “I am publicly committing the majority of my personal wealth — along with everything else I can do — to help refugees and help bring an end to this humanitarian crisis.”
“I believe that as people who have been blessed with opportunity in our own lives we must give hope to others,” he added.
For these efforts, Ulukaya was named an Eminent Advocate by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and received the United Nations Foundation Global Leadership Award, among other recognitions. What’s more, Ulukaya has also received the Oslo Business for Peace Award, and was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for his work on the refugee crisis and his innovative approach to business.
The Chobani founder has also taken up the cause of school lunch parity. Over the past year, he’s directed his company to donate more than $100,000 to wiping out school lunch debt at schools in the US, calling attention to food insecurity across the United States, and the terrible practice of “lunch shaming” that results when students have unpaid school lunch debt.
"As a parent, this news breaks my heart,” Ulukaya said in a statement at the time. “For every child, access to naturally nutritious and delicious food should be a right, not a privilege. When our children are strong, our families are stronger.”
Global Citizen Prize award ceremony will be broadcast around the world later in December. You can find out how to tune in wherever you are here — to watch the rest of Ulukaya's speech and hear from all the winners, to see incredible musical performances, to hear calls-to-action to help end extreme poverty, and more!
To learn more about the Global Citizen Prize and all those who have won please click here. You can find out all about Global Citizen’s 2020 campaign, Global Goal Live: The Possible Dream, and how you can be involved here.
Proud partners of the Global Citizen Prize include Comcast NBCUniversal, MSNBC, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Citi, Live Nation, Reckitt Benckiser (RB), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Motsepe Foundation.