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Chobani Founder: 'Almost 30 Percent of Our Workforce Is Refugees. This Is the American Way.'

Hamdi Ulukaya didn't start out knowing everything there is to know about the yogurt business. But that's exactly what helped him a build a diverse, innovative corporate culture.

Chobani has, over the past decade, altered the landscape of the U.S. dairy industry by popularizing Greek-style yogurt--and becoming a $1.5 billion, 2,000-employee business. But its founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, admits that when he first acquired an old factory in upstate New York in 2005, he didn't exactly know what he was doing. He quickly resolved to learn the parts of the jobs he needed to, and to get his hands dirty alongside his workers. In the process, he created the blueprint for a company whose culture has become his greatest source of pride. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin

I'm Kurdish; I'm from Turkey. I grew up in sheep farms, and in the mountains. What we respected most was people's values. It wasn't money, it wasn't how many sheep a person had. It wasn't how tall the person was. It was just that respect a person would get because of that person's actions. The community will trust that that person will be there. That person will lead the way. That person brings solutions. I watched my father be that. I watched my mother be that in a massive way. They were clearly leaders in the community.

When I started, all I had was five factory workers to convince. I couldn't promise big things. I couldn't promise security, even--that would have been misleading. But I could stand up and paint the walls. I painted the walls with them. That's the way I know. Action was my No. 1 thing. Walk the factory floor. Shake hands. Sit down, have lunch, joke, show vulnerabilities, show strength. Recognize people. I'm always there, shoulder to shoulder, in the frontline.

It was OK at the start that we were not the smartest, most educated people in the world. From the beginning, I wasn't shy to say: "I don't know" or "What does that mean?" I told that to the bankers; I said it in front of everyone. It's OK not to know. It's OK not to have that kind of experience. What's important is what you are going to do to learn and be a master at these things.

What I also tried to do from day one at Chobani was create a feeling of being home. I'm not an email person. I'm a physical interaction person. If you ask anyone who chose Chobani, they will say, "I feel like I am comfortable, I am myself. I am not a stranger here." It's a spirit of not just welcoming a new employee, but rather of letting someone truly be himself or herself.

People know us for our yogurt, for our product, but if you go inside the walls of Chobani, you know it is really a people's company. The first thing you feel is the human spirit. Whatever background you have, there is acceptance. It's not just that we gave 10 percent of the company back to employees. When I heard there were refugees in Utica who couldn't find jobs, I trusted in our culture and knew it would be another beautiful thing to happen at Chobani. And it turned out that now we have 19 or 20 different nationalities of refugees and immigrants. There are more than 20 languages spoken in each plant, and almost 30 percent of our workforce is refugees. This is the American way. This is what our country was built on.

I am proud of how it evolved from a startup to be this confident company that has disciplines and structures but never lost its soul. I'm proud that Chobani feels young. It has this energy that can't be stopped. It's just humbling. What I'm most excited about is where this is going to go. What our next 10 years is going look like.

We can't solve everything in the world. For me, life is about the fact that something you built makes positive changes in people's lives. I think this should be the new way of business. If Chobani can lead that, not only with the product it makes, but what kind of impact it has and the environment it creates, I think that would be a legacy that I was proud of. If we can show businesses a better way than the old way, I think the world will be a better place.

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