Re:Thinking with Adam Grant
"The anti-CEO playbook" with Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya
June 20, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani. He built the company from the ground up and turned it into the top Greek yogurt brand in America. I've long admired his anti-CEO playbook, which includes profit sharing and paid parental leave for employees, and his extensive efforts to hire and help refugees. He has a lot to teach us about leadership and resilience.
Hamdi, how are you?
[00:00:48] Hamdi Ulukaya:
How are you? Good to see you.
[00:00:50] Adam Grant:
Uh, same. It's been a while. Great to see you.
[00:00:52] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I know. I don't even know how long ago last I saw you. I, I, I just have a complete blackout of timing.
[00:01:01] Adam Grant:
Yeah, no, I know exactly how long it's been. It's been too long.
[00:01:04] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:01:05] Adam Grant:
Well, let me, let me start by saying, for anyone who doesn't already know, your life story is just incredible, and there just aren't that many people who have taken such a long journey to become successful entrepreneurs. So, can you talk a little bit about what your early life was like and how you landed where you are?
[00:01:22] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Like you said, it’s been a journey, and I sometimes have to pinch myself and say, “Am I in the dreams in the mountains of Turkey, or this is happening?” I was born in the northeastern part of Turkey's Kurdish tribe. My lifestyle, or my parents’, or their parents’ or their parents’, is really tribal, where you would stay in the village or town during the wintertime, which can be extremely cold.
And then in the spring, actually spring when the sheep have their babies and lambs and, and a couple of months later, the snow start melting, and the tribes start going up towards the mountains, and they will go higher and higher as the summer goes forward, and you will make cheese and yogurts and all kinds of stuff, and that would be the circle.
I dunno how many hundreds of years that people have done that. My early childhood is the memories of this tribal lifestyle. We had a little school in our town. I went to elementary school in my town. For the middle school and high school, I went to boarding school. I might have been the first one to ever go there, and I owe that to my teacher. He gave me this examination, I took it, and then I was accepted. There is not a day goes by, even now, that I don't go back to those days. It has a profound impact on my life.
And I carry all those things. The way that people interacted with each other, the worries, how they solved their issues, the life without material things. When you're up in the mountains, even if you had so much money, you don't know what to do with it. There's no store to buy anything. There's no car, there's not any electronics at the time; some people had more sheep, some people had less sheep, but people really interacted with each other based on respect, how you would receive one another.
Until I was in high school, I had direct interaction with that early lifestyle. Once I get into university, I was only there for two years, and then, you know, getting into trouble.
[00:03:16] Adam Grant:
What kind of trouble did you get in?
[00:03:18] Hamdi Ulukaya:
When you were in university in Ankara, in capitol, in Turkey, in nineties, and if you start writing about human rights, Kurdish rights, why the government is not doing things right, they put you into this all, all, “You're a separatist, you're a terrorist, you're this, you're that.”
And, and then the students will get lost. You know, they will take them. At the time, you would go to this center police station, and then they might not hear from you ever again, or you would come out with really some damages, such psychological, physical damages. I mean, these are known things happened to thousands or thousands of people and happened to my friends, and I was taken that way, and for some reason, after a day or two, I was let go.
And that was the reason I left the country. A stranger really said, “Why don't you go to America?” Until that stranger told me, America never even crossed my head. I didn't even think about it. All my friends were going to Europe when they were trying to get out from school, and I listened to that stranger. I saw him the next day. I went to him and I said, “How do you go to America?”
And turns out that he was educated in the US. He was an engineer, which… complete stranger. I've never talked to him before. He just heard me talking to my friends that I was going to France, and he just made that suggestion and that suggestion really is the reason I'm here.
[00:04:37] Adam Grant:
Wow. So that chance interaction changed the whole trajectory of your life.
[00:04:41] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah. And I don't even know who he was. I never seen him again.
[00:04:45] Adam Grant:
Well, whoever you are, if you're listening, we're all grateful that you sent Hamdi to America instead of France. So you come here in 1994, you find yourself in New York, you start going to university, and eventually, you decide to buy a yogurt plant. That's a lot of change. Can you tell me about those early years in the US?
[00:05:02] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Other than how to say my name or “Thank you” and, and few other words, I really did not know any English, and I'm looking at this entrance of this Penn Station and I said, “How am I going to find which train to take, what time to take, and where to, where to get off?”
I remember like yesterday, how overwhelmed I was and how scared I was. I had this tiny little bag, and I have $3,000 in my pocket, and my life in the last two, three months since I got arrested first time has been hell. I've been in this place where I could be taken any day, and I'm leaving everybody behind, and all I am care about at that moment is, “Can I find my, my train and get off in the right place so I can make it to this school?”
And, and I made it. And when I went to the, the room, they showed me the where I was going to be. And there was this bed, there was this blanket and pillow. And I remember putting my head into that pillow. And I don't know how long I slept, but that was the first time I had a comfortable sleep in months and months and months.
[00:06:09] Adam Grant:
[00:06:09] Hamdi Ulukaya:
And I knew I was safe, and I knew I was here, and I don't know what was gonna happen the next. I knew my money was gonna run out in few months, and I had no idea what was gonna happen after. If I wanna give that one message to anybody and say that sleep, that comfort, that safety means a lot. And sometimes we take it for granted here, but it's probably one of the most profound experiences that you can ever have. So you can be in your dimension, in your natural being, so you can decide what your journey is going to happen.
I've been curious, but at the same time, comfortable with unknown. I would say I was very scared. I can't say I wasn't scared. I was very scared, but not stopping me to be able to just move forward, continue to be walking, made me end up going to a farm in upstate New York, and then later on making cheese and later on, there's this plant is for sale. Let me go take a look and see what, what comes out of it. A lot of people told me along the way, “It just doesn't make any sense.” Those things really didn't affect me. I just listened how it felt with me at the time. I think coming back to that motion, and when I analyze it, as I said before, is just this curiosity. At the same time, now we call it the voice inside.
I just like something that forms up in your head, and you just feel like you're going to do this, and you're just gonna go forward, and without looking for logical explanations, that really manifested itself on me quite a bit during this journey.
[00:07:42] Adam Grant:
I hear you talking about something psychologists call tolerance for ambiguity, accepting uncertainty, not insisting that I need to be in control of a plan at all times.
[00:07:51] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:07:51] Adam Grant:
And that seems to be a major source of flexibility for people and certainly for you, right? In taking a couple of turns and pivots that probably most people in your shoes wouldn't have.
[00:08:01] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Making plans has never been my thing. I mean, I had a plan when I was in university in Turkey. My mother even picked me a girl to marry. I mean, the, the life was there, and that was the life I worked on for so long. But when I left it, it wasn't the plan that really bothered me that I left. It was my mom. I was gonna miss my mom. I had things that I was used to. When I started Chobani, same thing, but, you know, three years planned, five years planned, it has never been my thing until now. Now I'm making those kind of plans because I have kids. I think adaptations of the reality has been my thing, and that is coming back to the nomadic lifestyle. You know, if you're in a Kurdish tribe and nomadic Kurdish tribe, you leave, you go to a place and you say, “This is a good place for us to stay.”
And then you prepare that place. You put your tents on, you put all your belongings in them, you make a home in that place. And you know, weather is good, the grass is good, the shepherds are happy, and you stay there for a little bit. And then there's a time that comes and says, “Well, it's time for us to leave now.” And it could be any reason.
But what was fascinating is we spent so much time preparing that place to make a home for us. And then within couple of weeks, we would just put everything on horses and all that stuff. And you moved to next place, and then you make a home in that place and you just left.
Basically, you get into a new dimension, new reality. Is it not being attached to a place? Is it being open to moving forward? I don't know if anyone has analyzed that stuff, but I see those happen to me all the time. You know, like I do this in my mind all the time, even though if it's not in physical.
[00:09:41] Adam Grant:
One of the things I've just learned from your story is planning is a useful exercise, but plans are not helpful.
[00:09:47] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Ah, so true. You're creating some kind of rigid lines and not see the dimensions of possibilities. If you're not thinking outside those boxes, you're not focused. What's the difference between focus and being able to see or being open to possibilities and changes?
[00:10:05] Adam Grant:
Planning broadens your options and plans narrow them.
[00:10:09] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah, so good.
[00:10:10] Adam Grant:
There’ve been some really good experiments showing that if entrepreneurs are randomly assigned to make a business plan, they end up being more likely to succeed and less likely to fail. But, I think it's not the plan, it's the fact that they thought about what the future was gonna look like and then they anticipated some obstacles and some opportunities, and they were more prepared to do the kind of flexing and adapting you're talking about.
[00:10:32] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:10:32] Adam Grant:
Not the fact that they made a master plan for the next nine years and they were gonna stick to that no matter what.
[00:10:36] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I see a lot of those plans; some of them are forced plans. It's not gonna be relevant next year anyway. I remember I made my first business plan that I wrote for Small Business Administration to be able to buy that old factory, it was $700,000, and I had to make a plan.
It was the first time I ever done it, and no one remembered that plan six months after I launched the factory. It was a fraction of what we have done, you know, in the first six, seven months, or eight months, or a year. I'm struggling with that kinda stuff, of course, now we are running a large company, and I have to make some plans, but I never, I never locked myself into it. I never put myself into that prison.
[00:11:13] Adam Grant:
It's such a healthy way to stay open to rethinking your decisions and your strategy and your vision. Now, on the subject of rethinking, you're a very unlikely entrepreneur because I, I think the first time we met, you told me you didn't like business. You had a pretty negative attitude toward it. You thought it was a force for bad in the world.
[00:11:31] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:11:32] Adam Grant:
Talk to me a little bit about that and how it changed.
[00:11:34] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah. The activism I had in school got me in trouble is me basically being against the status quo, which is very, you know, hating the rich and businesses and how that caused so much problem in society and ordinary people's life, which was reality, right?
You have a very small minority, has enormous amount of wealth and control of what happens in society, and then you have millions of villagers and working class and everyone is suffering and there's no justice in there. And you search for justice. You want none of that, but you don't wanna be in silence and quiet and you wanna say, “Hey, this is not right. This needs to change.”
I've never seen myself being part of a business community or world of money or anything like that. When I end up in upstate New York working a farm for a year and a half, I basically, I was milking 60 cows and goats and spreading the manure in the land and going to school.
For year and a half, I was doing that, and that was the place I get in touch with the community, and I was seeing some people in business, and I was hearing some people in business and really changed my view of this world, not necessarily big world of business, but I say, “Okay, maybe money is not that dirty. Maybe you could do some good stuff with it. Maybe I am aligned with this. Maybe I can do something with it.”
I realized that my dad was in business. You know, we never thought that was a business, but he was making cheese all summer up in the mountains with, with sheep he had. And then, that cheese was being sold in cities and towns, and people were buying those cheese.
I never called it the business. I thought that was just a lifestyle, and that's what you do. I had never been to a business school. I never knew anyone who did started business, had never been to any corporate world. You know, I'm completely coming into this place uninformed other than have this emotional discomfort against it.
2005, I bought the plant. I know how to make yogurt. I can learn how to make it in here. And there's this five, four, or five factory workers. There's this plant. People will love this yogurt. I have no idea how I'm gonna sell it. People were saying, “Hamdi, are you not spending too much time on this kind of stuff that doesn't matter much?”
I said, “No, this has to be perfect, and this has to be this way.” And then, like, question like this, “Oh, the first place you sell your yogurt to will be at specialty stores?” And I was like, “No, I'm not selling into the special store. I'm going to go to the ordinary supermarkets and I'm going to sell it to where everybody's big company's yogurt was.” Like, this never happened this way, but I want to make yogurt for everybody. By 2012, Chobani was in billion in sales, and I had not even raised a penny.
[00:14:11] Adam Grant:
[00:14:11] Hamdi Ulukaya:
And I didn't even know how people were growing their businesses. So basically that not knowing was one of the best thing ever happened to me, because if I had known all of those things and made all kinds of calculations and analysis and make a board, I probably would've doubt myself.
I probably, somebody would wake me up and say, “Hey,” maybe convince me in a way and say, “This cannot happen.” And the only way it can happen is you bet people want it because, because they just discovered there’s, there's this yogurt that is really beautiful. So that made me decision, say, “Hey, I'm going to stay in the factory.”
And I committed. I didn't leave that place for five years, basically. I never left until people said that you guys made something that didn't happen in food world in a long time.
[00:14:55] Adam Grant:
The evolution in your beliefs during that time is striking too, because you go from being anti-business and anti-profits towards saying capitalism should be a force for good in the world.
[00:15:04] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah. And basically what I was saying to people is, I don't know what I'm doing. The only thing is I don't want to be the person grow up hating. I don't want to be the company who closed this place. I mean, imagine, Adam. This is a plant that's been there for 70 years. After they turn off that steam on that plant, that was debt. 55 people were closing that factory.
It remind me a feeling that I used to remember when a kid would drown in Euphrates River from our hometown. You will have this sadness cloud over the town for months and months. You feel like the whole place is dead. You know, it's cemetery. And I had the same feeling in there when that plant was closed, when I was buying it at the time, is that this is the end of us, this is finished, this is over.
And I was seeing those people how quiet, but at the same time how brave they were, closing that place. They were not complaining, not screaming, not throwing stones in places. They were just… This grace, this just amazing personality and affected me so dramatically. People were making decisions to move away, businesses were just making decisions to move away, and I convinced four people to join me from that 55, and I'm trying to convince them that we are going to start this, this place.
As humans, we are all thirsty for acknowledging that we are all worth it. Right? You abandoned me. You just told me that this place is worthless. You guys are worthless. This plant is worthless, and I'm just leaving somebody's worth, and how it makes those people feel. And I always felt that way when I lived in a small town, when those big powerful people, companies, and businesses that they would look at you down as if you’re worthless.
They don't say it, but the attitude is that way. What I saw in those people is the enormous amount of human spirit. How they were closing and how they were responding with that spirit. And when I turned it back on, you saw these miracles happening every day on these ordinary people. But it wasn't about me, it wasn't about Chobani, it was about this collective feeling.
We are going to do something that never been done before, or we gonna bring another left line to our life. You know, we are going to reimagine ourself, and no one identified that way, but I knew what it, what it was. You could say, “I'm gonna make a billion dollar sales,” and let's elevate. It doesn't, it's gotta be another dimension.
And we put that in there in day one. And it was going to be a story of everyone. It was gonna be a story of this town, this old factory, the farmers, and it was gonna be a story of another way of conducting business. Maybe you can’t change the world with cup of yogurt, but how you make it might.
[00:17:51] Adam Grant:
I think it might be time for a lightning round.
[00:17:53] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:17:54] Adam Grant:
Are you ready for some rapid-fire questions?
[00:17:56] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I’m never good at these things.
[00:17:58] Adam Grant:
Is there a book that you think our listeners should all read?
[00:18:01] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Everyone should read Rumi.
[00:18:03] Adam Grant:
Uh, what’s a podcast you enjoy listening to?
[00:18:06] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I've been listening a lot of books in audiobooks, which I never thought I would do.
[00:18:13] Adam Grant:
Is there an audiobook you've recently listened to and loved?
[00:18:15] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I read The Alchemist again. I dunno why I read this again. I, I read it many times. I think I read it so I can tell some good stories to my sons. They love stories, and I'm kind of losing some stories like, uh, from the mountains and the shepherds and all that kind of stuff.
And I was always fascinated how that shepherd's story, uh, a shepherd boy from a town of Spain and tried to go to find the treasure in premise and how he goes’ it’s a magical story. So I just finished that one again, listening to that one again.
[00:18:47] Adam Grant:
Good choice as well. Is there something you've rethought recently or a belief you've changed your mind about or an opinion you've questioned?
[00:18:55] Hamdi Ulukaya:
You never cry in front of the others, and I cry now all the time. I—
[00:18:59] Adam Grant:
You cry in front of your team?
[00:19:00] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah, I cry. I don't hide my tears anymore.
[00:19:04] Adam Grant:
Wow. That's a powerful statement. Yeah, why not?
[00:19:07] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah. Um, I used to think, I think it's also nomadic things. If you are a leader, you don't show your weakness in front of the others, right? That has nothing to do with leadership. And I think once you become a father, you realize you're a human. And the other day we lost our dogs, and two of my sons and myself, we were there for her last day. And my sons, they saw me, you know, crying, and my father would never show his tears to me. I'd never seen him cry. And, and the little one asked me, “Bubba, you cry?” And I said, “Yes, it's okay to cry.” Not showing your emotion is not the right thing.
[00:19:42] Adam Grant:
It's so interesting how many people are taught that leadership is about showing strength, and therefore emotion must be weakness. Last time I checked, one of your biggest strengths as a leader is how much you care.
[00:19:53] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:19:53] Adam Grant:
Right? So those emotions are actually strength, not weakness. What's the question you have for me as an organizational psychologist?
[00:20:01] Hamdi Ulukaya:
For me, when people ask me questions, I go to my experiences, and from my experiences, I try to answer… How do you write, or how do you become a top leader on leaderships? And you know, the, it's basically on, on every circumstances, you think about and says “Okay, as if he has been there.” How do you get that insight to be able to write that close to reality?
[00:20:25] Adam Grant:
It's something I aspire to. I don't ever feel like I'm fully there. When I was 25, I was asked to teach leadership to a group of leaders twice my age, and I felt like I was underqualified and dramatically under-experienced. I hadn't been in their shoes, and after the first session, which went very poorly, I did a lot of reflection and said, “Maybe I can take what I learned from the first group and share it with the second.” And then I thought maybe I can keep doing that. In some ways, the curse of having deep experiences, you only get to live yours, your own experience. Right?
But as a social scientist, I can collect data from lots of people, and sometimes those data are experiments and, you know, and surveys, but in other cases, they're stories people tell me. I don't have to have the life experience myself. If I become a careful observer and a close listener; I can collect people's stories and see the patterns across them.
And at one point, I, even when I was still in my twenties, I, I stood up in front of a class, and I said, “Listen, I know you all have much more experience than I do. I'm not here to try to replace your experience. What I want to do is actually share with you the, the sum total insight of a much larger base of experience, and I want to give you a framework to help you analyze your experience better.”
[00:21:41] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah, I, I find you to be a, a really good translator.
[00:21:46] Adam Grant:
Well, thank you. I, uh, I wanna talk a little bit more about your philosophy on business as a force for good and the way that you put people and purpose above profits. To link back to something you said earlier, there's been some research on how for-profit companies are stereotyped as competent, but cold and uncaring, and nonprofits are the opposite. They're stereotyped as very warm and kind, but sort of hapless and incompetent.
[00:22:11] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:22:12] Adam Grant:
And there was a, a paper that came out a few years ago by Amit Bhattacharjee and colleagues, which showed that a lot of people hold these very knee-jerk anti-profit beliefs, and they say, you know, if a company is making profit, it must be doing something evil, or, you know, self-serving.
And even if you took the exact same organization with the same mission and you labeled it a for-profit instead of a nonprofit, they trusted it less. And then you could change people's views on that a little bit by helping them think about the ways that capitalism can incentivize people to create value, the ways in which long-term profits can be invested, but you have a much better solution to that problem.
You've said, “I’m not content to run business as usual. I'm gonna build an anti-CEO playbook.” What is in that playbook?
[00:23:00] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I can't tell you now that I started this business just because I, I wanted to be against the typical companies and typical CEOs, and I want to create a new, new way of business. I saw this old factory, and I saw there’s some people, and there was some calling, whatever that is, and I said, “I will make some yogurt.” And the only thing I wanted to do is not to be the person I grew up hating, as I said before, and not to be the company that codes this place
[00:23:28] Adam Grant:
That, that is such a striking example of what people in my field call disidentification, where you define who you want to be by, who you definitely don't want to be.
[00:23:37] Hamdi Ulukaya:
They don't wanna be. Yeah, exactly. I said that to, to the Chobani employees when we did the Chobani shares to all factory workers. For years, I had my, my, my mom’s, the last scarf under my hat, and it was always there. And the reason I put it in there is this is a road that you're taking in, and you're talking about money, success.
You're talking about all kinds of stuff coming in, and you know, you lose those things. It all, it will affect it. I didn't trust I can handle it. and I needed someone to remind me all the time. No one could make me do things other than my mom. My mom was my North Star, the first profit that we made, my assistant at that time. Cassie comes and says, “Hamdi, they're raising money to, to fix the field that the kids are playing baseball.”
And I said, “How much money they want?” And they said, “Oh, they need $20,000 to just make it even so the kids can, can play?” And I said, “Why don't we talk to all the contractors and electricians, everyone around this town, and built something really, really good together?” I didn't grow up with baseball, but I understand how important that is for the children.
With the opening of that field, it's still there. There was something magical in that field. I guess so addicted to making that shift, like how many times can we make a shift on people’s mind and can think about some things? And you know, that was one of the early days I realized the real power of this business and real power of this work.
And all I wanted to do is have similar experiences while I am doing this. And you know, what you described between NGO or for-profit business and social enterprise and all that kind of stuff I'm reading it later on in life is it's not really that complicated. I love business. There's a huge belief that if you are not focused on maximizing profits, you are not going to be able to that successful.
I think that's about to change. I think the business world needs to find its way, hasn't found it yet. You don't have to lead the field of business to be good. Stay business and just bring roots to it. Bring reasons to it other than profit. And that is not against the profit.
[00:25:59] Adam Grant:
Bingo. We have to talk about at least a couple of the ways that you've done that. You've gotten a lot of praise for your profit-sharing initiatives, your paid parental leave programs. You pay people above the minimum wage rates and give people regular increases, but not surprisingly, I think the thing that people look up to you for the most is your work with refugees. And I think obviously the nonprofit work you've done there is very admirable, but also the for-profit work you've done there is extremely important. You were quoted recently as saying the minute a refugee gets a job is the minute they stop being a refugee.
[00:26:34] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:26:35] Adam Grant:
And you've said this is not just for the benefit of the refugee.
[00:26:39] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:26:39] Adam Grant:
We could actually see this as part of our talent strategy.
[00:26:41] Hamdi Ulukaya:
[00:26:42] Adam Grant:
Maybe some of your most undervalued, under-recognized future hires are refugees right now, and that's a talent pool that we're not paying attention to or tapping into. Talk to me about that and what we should be seeing in refugees that most companies are missing.
[00:26:57] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I hit this town. I used to live Utica and said, “There are refugees settled here, legally has right to work, and they're having a hard time to find jobs.” And I heard that and I went to refugee center. I said, “What's the problem?”
And said, they don't speak the language, they don't have driver license or cars,, and they don't have the training, the jobs that are available here. And this is 2008, 2009, right? This is also another economic crisis we are going through, and I said, “Who are these people?” I saw about, about 19 different nationalities, 16 different languages. You know, hundreds of them.
I said, “Okay, well, we’re hiring, so we'll get some cars and buses and we'll get some translators, and we'll train them in the plant, and let's see what happens.” This is the plam. I was the second person in that community who had the accent. The first one was Frank. Frank was from Sicily, who came there for two years ago, opened his pizza shop, and he used to tell me, he says, “Hamdi, until you showed up, I was the king in here.”
So people say, “Hamdi, you're gonna bring Southeast Asians and Africans and Middle Easterns into this place that people are unfamiliar. How do you think that it's gonna be okay?” I said, “I know it's gonna be okay.” I never thought that was a refugee work. I thought we are hiring everybody. I want everyone to be part of this.
And I thought that was a community work, Adam. And later on, they start discussing this on political environment, and I realized 25, 30% of our people were from 19 different nationalities, and these are all people I worked with, made Chobani what it is, and, and we benefited from it tremendously. But at the same time, I see how it affected them in their life.
It just happened to me in front of me, and I spoke up and I said, “Come look, we are shoulder to shoulder making yogurt. What's the problem?” And that led me to go to UNHCR in Geneva and realize how big this problem is and realize no business is involved and people are stuck, but basically stuck, and compare with the people who became part of Chobani. It's just like the new life has started now, how dramatic that job had became in their life. I have been to the border of Colombia, Venezuela. I’ve been to recently, Poland, when the war broke, and Ukraine. I've been to island in Lesbos in, in Greece.
These people, how they found a way to stay alive and survive and go from place to places, you wanna tack into that spirit. You wanna tack into that capability. You don't know what they're going to do, what they have going to after that, what they have gone through. I said, “You want that in your place, and not only they're going to do it, they're going to affect everybody else to do something that they never thought that they would be doing.”
Some along the way that you realize not only you're doing a good thing for people of community, but at the same time it's amazing for your company. Stories are being told in the companies when they come in, even the small numbers, they come in and when people listen to these stories and how they can affect by it, I says, sometimes they forget it's the other side of the coin. Not only refugee brings those things, but also affects the others to think differently.
[00:29:52] Adam Grant:
Last thing I have to ask you about before we let you go. Not too long ago, Turkey went through a devastating earthquake. In the short run, I saw you make a major donation. You were fundraising, you were raising awareness.
It raised some fundamental questions around how do you prepare for this kind of crisis in the future? How do you build infrastructure? How do you create a social system that helps and supports people more effectively? And I know this is a hard question to answer, and it could be a whole ‘nother podcast episode. What do you take away as the leadership lessons from the crisis in Turkey?
[00:30:25] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I look at all the crises the way that I looked at how that factory got closed in upstate New York. And you look at it and say, “This must be the end of things.” And then there's a different way of looking at it. So maybe this could be another beginning.
And you know, I always said you don't want bad things to happen. It's traumatic, it's tragedy, it's, it's horrible. But once that happens, you, you have no time to lose. Millions get affected. Thousands, thousands have died. Cities collapsed. And the second day I tried to give that message of let's save what we can save.
But there's been something in here that we didn't have and it didn't exist. The people of Turkey are very resilient. The land has gone through, throughout the history, enormous amount of tragedies and and crises. If there's any time, this is the time to shine, right? Antennas are all open and receptive, very emotional at the same time, and the effect of those early days, early years has enormous other effect, you know, for a long, long time.
So, and, and being in it is staying with it because cameras goes off, people leave. People think that everything is back to normal. The effects of something like this goes on years and years and years. That led me to be a Turkish American business council. I took that role and I think that the American companies and Turkish companies to the companies, these people, have have, you know, more and more effect on not only what happened to people in earthquake but all the surrounding, you know, both countries and both people.
So I really do believe Turkey will pass through this and, and learn a lot and, and rebuild it. But how we do it is going to determine how healthy people will get going forward. So these works are extremely important.
[00:32:12] Adam Grant:
I, I think the idea of, of taking what seems like an ending and turning it into a beginning is probably the most useful thing we could do.
[00:32:21] Adam Grant:
In the face of a crisis.
[00:32:22] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Absolutely. Absolutely. 100%.
[00:32:24] Adam Grant:
I think that's extremely powerful. Well, Hamdi, thank you. It's always a pleasure to soak up your humility, your curiosity, your wisdom. I, I feel like I could listen to you talk all day.
[00:32:34] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Thank you, Adam. Thank you so much. I'm so honored to be with you, and I can't wait to see you again in person.
[00:32:38] Adam Grant:
Same. The honor is all mine. Thank you for being here.
What Hamdi underscored for me is the importance of feeling safe in order to take a risk, how we need to feel secure in order to accept a measure of uncertainty, and that safety and security is at a basic level, something too many of us take for granted. I think the world would be a better place if more of us asked, “How can I make the people around me feel safer and more secure?”
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint. BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.
Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Alison Leyton-Brown.
[00:33:34] Hamdi Ulukaya:
I always joked about these meditation things, and I do meditate now. I have some really… friends that I got to know along the way that they were masters. One of them is, is like a, uh, Zen Master and I said, “Well, let's have coffee and talk, but don't, don't bring this meditation stuff up.” And he's smiling now.
[00:33:56] Adam Grant:
He must be very happy that you, you thought again on that one.
[00:33:56] Hamdi Ulukaya:
Yeah, he’s happy.