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Chobani Founder's Solution to World Refugee Crisis: Hire Them

Aug. 28, 2019
Companies have a responsibility to consider employing refugees, says Hamdi Ulukaya, who founded the Tent Partnership for Refugees.

Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant who used a small business loan to build a best-selling yogurt brand in the U.S., has a plan to solve the world’s growing refugee crisis: Give them jobs.

During a trip to Colombia where he was meeting with business leaders and Venezuelan migrants, the billionaire founder of the Greek-style yogurt producer Chobani LLC said companies have a responsibility to help solve the global refugee emergency.

“The number one thing is hiring, a job,” he said in an interview in Bogota. “For a refugee, it’s day and night. That’s the point at which they find their life can continue.”

Ulukaya, 46, is putting his money where his mouth is. Chobani has a policy of employing refugees at its U.S. plants and he has pledged much of his personal fortune to the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a charity he founded. Since then he’s been traveling to recruit business leaders, pushing them to give refugees equal consideration when hiring employees.

“It’s good for the companies to be a part of this,” he said. “Because people five years or 10 years from now are going to question ‘What did you do about this? Why were you not part of this?’”

The UN Refugee Agency estimates the worldwide population of forcibly displaced people, which includes refugees and other migrants, has risen nearly 70% over the past decade to roughly 71 million.

About 4 million Venezuelans have fled an economic and humanitarian crisis in their homeland. Some 1.4 million have settled in Colombia, a country of 49 million that has called on international donors to help it cover growing costs.

Venezuela Initiative

Ulukaya said a “significant” number of businesses in the goods and services industries with operations in Latin America have agreed to join him in helping Venezuelan migrants in Colombia by providing employment and other initiatives. They will announce their commitments next month in New York to coincide with the first day of the United Nations General Assembly.

Raised in a dairy-farming family in Turkey, Ulukaya bought a shuttered Kraft Foods Inc. factory in upstate New York and launched his company in 2007 using a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. He turned the thick-style Chobani yogurt into a household name in the U.S., where it is the No. 1 yogurt by sales, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The closely-held company has struggled in recent years as Greek yogurt sales dipped and competition increased. The yogurt maker’s 2025 bond traded below 80 cents on the dollar at the end of 2018 before recovering to around 93 cents this month.

Private equity firm TPG Capital lent Chobani $750 million in 2014 and received warrants that could have been converted into equity. Chobani paid off TPG last year by selling a 20% equity stake to Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, which Ulukaya described as a “long-term minority investor.”

Sales have improved in 2019 and annual revenues are around $1.5 billion, the company said. For now, Ulukaya said he sees no need to take Chobani public. Instead focusing on launching new products “in categories where we’ve never been before,” without elaborating on the products or timing.

“I’m not against an IPO,” he said. “I just have to do it for the right reason and at the right time.”

Ulukaya’s net worth is estimated at $1.34 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In 2015, he signed on to The Giving Pledge campaign, popularized by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and promised to commit the majority of his personal wealth to end the global refugee crisis.

By Ezra Fieser

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