Published: 04-26-2018

    Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani Yogurt, knows what it is like to move to a new country and start from scratch and he is not allowing his new found wealth to cloud the genuine empathy he has for those in need. He recently added his name to the list of billionaires who are pledging to give away 50% of their wealth in their lifetime.

    Ulukaya, 43, is Kurdish and grew up on dairy farm in Erzincan, Turkey. He  came to the United States in 1994 to learn English, and he started a small feta- cheese company, called Euphrates, in 2002. A few years later, with a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, he bought a dilapidated Kraft yogurt plant that was closing, hired four of the factory’s employees, and started Chobani Yogurt.

    Today Chobani yogurt is valued at over 3 Billion dollars and has a team of more than 2,000 full time employees. Their boss wants them to share in his good fortune.

    Giving to his staff
    On April 26th 2016 Ulukava announced that he would be giving all of his 2,000 full-time workers awards that could be worth in aggregate up to 10% of the privately held company’s future value if it goes public or is sold. Each employee was given “Chobani Shares” based on the workers’ tenure and role at the company, which could be converted to cash or shares in the event of an initial public offering or a sale. The average employee payout could be $150,000, and some long-tenured employees could see windfalls possibly worth more than $1 million.

    “This is not a gift but a mutual promise to work together with a shared purpose and responsibility. How we built this company matters to me, but how we grow it matters even more. I want you to be a part of this growth — I want you to be the driving force of it.”
    Ulukava – in a letter to all employees

    The decision also means Ulukaya is diluting his own stake, and whatever the  motivations, there are likely business benefits. If employees end up holding substantial  equity stakes, that could lead to more natural  allies among investors, preempt unionization efforts and create even more of a connection between workers and management.

    Giving to the community
    Ulukaya’s wealth was estimated to be $1.4 billion by Forbes in 2016. He pledged $2 million in October that year to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Rescue Committee. He plans to funnel his donations through Tent, a new foundation he is launching to provide direct relief to refugees, raise awareness of the plight of displaced people around the world, and identify, establish, and support creative, long-term solutions.

    Ulukaya says he knew something about the plight of refugees because he has hired displaced people to work in his factory in upstate New York. His understanding of the full magnitude of the crisis grew not just from reading the news but also from hearing first-hand stories related by friends and family back home.

    “All these people were suffering and dying, and seeing people with faces like my uncles, my aunts, that kind of made me urgently do something. I had to do something about it before it was too late.”

    He says his late mother taught him the importance of giving to those in need. Since Chobani’s early days, he has directed 10 percent of the company’s annual profits to charity through the Chobani Foundation. The foundation gave $624,920 to nonprofits in 2013, according to the grantmaker’s most recent tax filings.

    Amongst the recipients of the foundation’s support is L.A. Kitchen, an organization that we, at Angeles Wealth Management, also have the honor of supporting (read our previous blog for more information about L.A. Kitchen). LA Kitchen’s president Robert Egger had these glowing words to say about
    Chobani and Ulukaya:

    “Chobani is one of those companies that is so much more than the products you buy. Hamdi Uluaya set out to build a company that supports its employees, the community where it’s based and nonprofits in all its markets. He visited and supported D.C. Central Kitchen, and Chobani been a dedicated partner in helping establish L.A. Kitchen. I think they are a stellar example of a true
    corporate citizen.”
    – Robert Egger President of LA Kitchen

    While Ulukaya won’t say how much money he has put into Tent so far, he says he sees it as an “ideas factory” through which he is taking a deeper dive into using his fortune to help solve the global refugee crisis.

    “We can play a really unique role and be a different voice. We can get angry sometimes and say what needs to be said, and at the same time come up with  solutions that haven’t been tried before.”

    – Hamdi Ulukaya – Founder of Chobani and Philanthropist

    Why I Give: ‘All These People Were Suffering and Dying’
    By Maria Di Mento – originally published: The Chronicle of Philanthropy July 6th 2015

    At Chobani, Now Itʼs Not Just the Yogurt Thatʼs Rich
    By Stephanie Storm – originally published: The New York Times April 26th 2016

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