Chobani Founder: The American Dream Happened to Me

He’s totally serious, Hamdi Ulukaya, as he looks at me and says his best piece of advice to other entrepreneurs is “you just have to paint the walls.”

The founder of the popular Chobani brand is responsible for stirring America’s hunger for Greek yogurt, bringing his family tradition all the way to the United States from Turkey.

To understand his seemingly unusual advice, you don’t have to look much further than northern New York for some context.

Picking the Right Color

Born into a family of Turkish cheese and yogurt makers, the world of dairy was nothing new to Ulukaya. But he searched for something new. So, in the early 1990s, he boarded a plane with the hope of finding some semblance of the American Dream.

What he initially set his sights on, though, was a lot different than the life he’s discovered. His plan was to learn English and study business in the U.S. Focused on that goal, when opportunity presented itself, Ulukaya literally threw away the inkling of an idea he had that would eventually become Chobani.

“I saw an ad for a fully-equipped yogurt plant for sale. It came as junk mail to me and I threw it in the garbage can,” he said. “Later on, I picked it up and that was... Probably if I didn’t pick that up I wouldn’t have this business now.”

Days later, Ulukaya visited the 95-year-old yogurt plant that Kraft Foods was looking to unload. But where Kraft saw trash, Ulukaya saw dollar signs.

“Everybody thought I was crazy. I bought it. I bought it with an SBA loan,” he recalled, referring to a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. “I remember we had the first board meeting in August of 2005 with five workers. Mike, he was the maintenance guy, and he said, so what are we going to do next? He thought I had a plan.”

The truth was Ulukaya didn’t really have a plan at that point. He had a building and knew he wanted to make great yogurt – something completely different than what America was used to—but he didn’t quite know how to bridge the gap.

But drawing on his favorite quote from a Turkish philosopher -- “If you start walking the way, the way appears.” -- he figured you have start somewhere.

“I said we’re going to paint the walls. Because this was an old building and the paint was all messed up outside. And he looked at me and said you should have better plans than painting the walls,” Ulukaya said.

Stirring the Paint

Growing up in Turkey, Ulukaya was used to heavily incorporating yogurt into his everyday diet.

Shortly after arriving in the U.S. Ulukaya, who was used to the rich and tarter flavor of the traditional Greek yogurt, was shocked by the product on which Americans slapped the word “Greek.”

“These are the brands that are available all over the world and they make some good yogurt somewhere else, but why is it here that they’re all full of sugar? You really have to name (it) something else other than yogurt,” he said.

So when Ulukaya sifted through his junk mail and found the ad for the Kraft factory something inside him clicked. And Chobani was born.

Ulukaya has faced his fair share of naysayers throughout the process of launching his new dream and getting it firmly off the ground.

“They would convince me not to do it, that it was a dumb idea, that it was crazy. And they would use some harsh words to convince me that it was a really bad idea,” he said.

And he had his own share of doubts, especially once he got into the factory and realized what he’d bought – five years worth of saving and investing all channeled into one factory in need of some serious TLC. Of course he said he doubted himself.

In fact, he said some of the most difficult times of his life were spent inside that factory.

“I didn’t have a life, I didn’t have a family, didn’t go anywhere. But I loved it,” he said

And occasionally he told his naysayers he wanted to give up.

“I would say okay, you’re right, maybe I am crazy,” he said. “So I would go back to sleep and in the morning I would wake up and I would say, no I gotta do this. It’s this voice that you have and you just cannot resist.”

He stuck to what he knew and the goal of making a product he loved.

“I wanted to make yogurt my mother made,” he said. “That was the best yogurt I ever tasted.”

In 2007, fully satisfied and confident in his version of Greek yogurt, Ulukaya officially launched Chobani, putting his traditional product into America’s hand.

You Just Have to Paint the Walls

Everything he learned he learned from life experiences. Not chapters from how-to books, not hours spent inside a business school classroom and not from lessons-on-tape.

And because of that Ulukaya believes he’s well-equipped to handle the booming business he built from the ground-up.

“Business is not this complicated how-to-do type of stuff -- it’s just your life. I think every family is a kind of business in a way – you just go in and you find out what’s next. You find out what you did right, what you did wrong,” he said.

The essential part, he said, is to surround yourself with people who you believe in and who believe in you and your businesses’ goals.

Part of the technique he’s found to being a good leader he says he learned all the way back home so many years ago.

“Be yourself; be conscious with your family, who you work with, the community. And try to do good things. You know, while you’re building the business, building things around it, don’t destroy it,” he said.

Ulukaya not only talks the talk he walks the walk. Shortly after he knew Chobani was on its way to success, he decided to begin giving back to his upstate New York community.

“I printed on my first cup: 10% of my profit goes to doing good in the world. One of the first projects we did was funding a Little League field in our town, small town, and it’s probably one of the happiest day of my life,” he said.

To him that’s just part of doing good business.

In the end Ulukaya gives credit to Americans who have helped propel him and his traditional Greek yogurt to success.

“This is an amazing country. I’ve been here almost 20 years. There’s nowhere else in the world that you can do what you can do here. If you have an idea, if you’re really passionate about it, start painting the walls, you’ll figure it out, “he said.