Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya is using his yogurt empire to help resettle Afghan refugees

By Clint Rainey

September 29, 2021

Hamdi Ulukaya’s people-first business philosophy and philanthropic endeavors have famously been aimed at helping people outside the United States: Syrian refugees, Haitian earthquake victims, Somalians suffering from famine, Guatemalan entrepreneurs, Turkish startups. But the Chobani CEO’s latest two ventures hit closer to home.

Since August, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have arrived in America, and last week, Ulukaya—arguably the business world’s most outspoken refugee advocate—launched a brand-new initiative, the Tent Coalition for Afghan Refugees, to help resettle them, just as their arrival is becoming more politically fraught.

“When the Afghan situation arrived, we said, ‘This is beautiful that these people who helped the American military and risked their lives and became their allies are going to be rescued,’” Ulukaya tells Fast Company. “But we immediately knew there was a set of problems.”

Some of those problems baffle Ulukaya. The corporate world “is completely absent from this humanitarian crisis,” he says, and meanwhile, policy-wise, “nothing has changed since the 1940s, after World War II.” In America, treatment of refugees actually got worse: President Trump spent four years rolling back protections, halting asylum, and reducing the number of refugees allowed in by 80%, to the lowest-ever level.

The Biden administration has re-prioritized helping refugees, but can only do so much. Ulukaya’s Tent Coalition has lent a hand by cobbling together an impressive array of corporations within weeks of the U.S. withdrawal. Amazon, Uber, Facebook, Hilton, UPS, the Gap, Pfizer, Tyson Foods, and two dozen other companies have agreed to join Chobani in hiring refugees, training them, and providing other resources.

The coalition is one arm of the larger Tent Partnership for Refugees, a nonprofit Ulukaya has run since 2016. (“Once a refugee gets a job, that’s the moment they stop being a refugee” has been his long-running mantra.) Tent is currently cooperating with the State Department, and also working with U.S. resettlement agencies to match individuals’ job skills with companies’ needs. Once it finishes assessing where to place refugees, partner companies will embark on specific action plans to help the new arrivals, including Chobani at its factories in upstate New York and Twin Falls, Idaho.

Probably it’s not coincidence that the Biden administration chose Twin Falls—where Chobani opened the world’s biggest yogurt plant in 2012—as one of the 139 U.S. cities that will accept Afghan refugees, although this move hasn’t sat well with everybody: Top Idaho Republicans, led by Gov. Brad Little, have already written President Biden a letter warning that the federal government should expect Idaho State Police to apply “additional vetting measures” to incoming refugees. Luckily, Chobani learned to navigate this sort of cold welcome long ago: The Twin Falls plant has employed hundreds of refugees since opening, which has even made Ulukaya and plant workers the targets of death threats and other racist attacks.

A ‘delicious’ solution to hunger

Last week, Chobani also released a new product: its first peanut butter. Like the rest of the brand’s growing product line, it’s made with wholesome ingredients (and Ulukaya assures Fast Company it “tastes delicious”), but the kicker is its partnership with Edesia, a nonprofit dedicated to ending child hunger and malnutrition. Its secret ingredient is something called Plumpy’Nut, a French peanut paste inspired by Nutella but packed with nutrients that help treat severe acute malnutrition. After Edesia started manufacturing pouches of it in 2005, the product was credited with lowering child mortality rates in Africa. It’s since fed more than 15 million children in 60 countries.

And now, you’ll find Chobani’s peanut butter spreads in American grocery aisles. Chobani is donating 100% of profits to Edesia to fund Plumpy’Nut, and Ulukaya hopes its conspicuous presence reminds Americans that child hunger and malnutrition are issues in their own backyards, too.

Edesia was the first nonprofit to go through the popular Chobani Food Incubator. Founder Navyn Salem is a Rhode Island mother of four who devoted herself to the cause after catching a 60 Minutes story on the topic. “She’s delivered millions and millions of these peanut butter pouches around the globe—you know, Africa, the Middle East, South America,” says Ulukaya. “But she thought there was equally a need for nutritious peanut butter products in the U.S.”

“I’ve learned a lot during this process,” he adds about working with Edesia. “Child nutrition is not just a global problem—it’s a U.S. problem. And this pandemic accelerated that in a very dramatic way.” Unsurprisingly, he is not very optimistic that America’s leading food manufacturers are equipped to resolve this problem: “You’re looking at maybe a dozen companies that own 70% of food that is being produced in this country at a mass scale … I do not like what I see when it comes to these large food brands and their approach to making food for children. It is an area where as you go deeper inside, you find more and more not-so-nice pictures.”

By now, Chobani is an O.G. member of corporate America’s new mission-driven era. Along the way, the yogurt brand has grown into a full-fledged food company, cranking out coffee creamers, cold brew, pet food in Australia, and now peanut butter. And in the coming months, Chobani could blaze another trail for companies that strive to put mission above profits. Back in 2016, Ulukaya shocked employees by pledging to give them a 10% stake in Chobani if and when it goes public. Well, Chobani has now filed paperwork for an IPO that could happen later this year. While Chobani said Ulukaya was unable to discuss the IPO itself, analysts estimate the company could be worth over $10 billion. At that valuation, the average payout to Chobani’s 2,000 full-time employees would be nearly $500,000, and some would become overnight millionaires.

Ulukaya tells Fast Company his general compensation philosophy goes back to Chobani’s first dairy plant in upstate New York, about five miles from his home. He ignored his lawyer’s advice and bought the facility from Kraft Foods, which was closing it. “I saw another corporation abandoning people who had contributed for the longest time,” he explains now. “I was conscious enough to realize that if I’m going to have a chance at this, then I’m never going to repeat what the other guys did. They fired them, so I said, ‘I’m going to make them my partners.’”

This story was updated to clarify that Ulukaya did not discuss the forthcoming IPO and was not specifically asked about it.