A lesson in compassionate corporate duty and community for college graduates from Chobani’s CEO

Hamdi Ulukaya is founder and CEO of Chobani, which has a huge plant in Twin Falls.
Hamdi Ulukaya is founder and CEO of Chobani, which has a huge plant in Twin Falls. AP file

Since I left the presidency of Boise State, I can expect two questions from just about anyone who might recognize me: How’s retirement and do you miss being president? Since I’ve tended not to look at life through the rear-view mirror, my usual answer is that I am enjoying what I am doing now and look forward to more of it!

Well, there is one exception. Over the years, one of the great joys I experienced was presiding over the graduation ceremony. It’s a validation of the faculty and staff’s devotion to the student experience, all in preparation for that moment when the university hands off the graduates to that “real world” we like to contrast with the somewhat more protected and insular world of the campus.

To point the graduates in the right direction and exemplify the models of leadership, service and career success, universities usually confer an honorary doctorate on an individual of significant accomplishment, and then ask the recipient to address the graduates. Over the years I’ve heard some inspiring graduation addresses, but the one I saw on video the other day at Boise State’s recent graduation ceremony was particularly inspiring in light of the times.

Graduates, their families and friends heard from Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, who chose to build a yogurt plant in Twin Falls in 2017 to provide new employment opportunities for Idahoans. Ulukaya’s story is quite remarkable and confirms once again how immigrants continually add to the quilted pattern of races and ethnicities that define America as a land of opportunity.

For Ulukaya, it was not an easy journey. A Kurd from Turkey who grew up the son of a shepherd, he fled his homeland and found his way to America after being questioned by Turkish authorities about his pro-Kurdish rights stances. Arriving in America without much money and little command of English, he spent his first few years working on a dairy farm and learning English. By 2002, he built a small cheese company, and dared to challenge the conventional wisdom that he could not build it into something even bigger. Against the advice of friends and family, he used a Small Business Administration loan to buy a Kraft yogurt factory that had closed and laid off its workforce of a few hundred employees. He turned that into the Chobani of today, employing more than 2,000 workers with plants in New York, Idaho and Australia.

That’s only the beginning of the Chobani story. As Ulukaya told the graduates, his story is one of confronting conventional wisdom, and finding new and better ways to live the good life and create success in career. While too many corporations were giving up and pulling out of rural America, Ulukaya was moving in, as he did in Twin Falls. Chobani not only employed its own workers in Idaho, but for every one of them, 7-10 local jobs were created outside the company.

Ulukaya told the graduates how he wanted to bring his company to a place where he felt “we belonged,” and he gave credit to then-Gov. Butch Otter and then-Lt. Gov. Brad Little for making it all work, even though some states offered Ulukaya “a lot more” to locate his next plant there.

While too many politicians seek refuge in the narrow minds of some Americans who have forgotten who built this nation and who continually renews it, Chobani’s company policy is to hire refugees whenever possible. Chobani workers hail from 19 different nations. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Ulukaya urged companies to do more to help refugees settle and find work in countries around the world.

Breitbart and other far-right websites attacked Ulukaya and concocted false claims, at least one of which wound up in federal district court and resulted in the conspiracy theorist and right-wing radio host Alex Jones retracting his comments about Chobani and admitting that he was wrong.

While too many companies walk away from communities when times get tough, Chobani pledges 10 percent of its profits to charity to help those communities. And while too many companies lobby hard against a better minimum wage for employees, Ulukaya imposes higher pay minimums for his workers and offers them equity stakes in the company.

It is no wonder that Hamdi Ulukaya would counsel against following conventional wisdom. Chobani is living proof that his formula works. It works for Twin Falls, Idaho and America. Since Chobani laid out its original footprint in the Magic Valley, two plant expansions, including a new global innovation center, attest to the founder’s commitment to rural America, and to workers and communities that deserve a piece of the American Dream.

What’s most impressive about what Chobani brought to Idaho is its thinking about a corporation’s duty to its workers and its home. When Foreign Policy magazine named Hamdi Ulukaya one of 2017’s Global Thinkers, it said he “proved that business can drive positive social change.” With far more progressive and humane thinking than anything that’s coming out of the federal government these days, business leaders and entrepreneurs such as Ulukaya pave the way for a new wave of thinking in the business world that “trumps” current-day practice, including the harsh words that too often come from high places.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman Editorial Board.