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Chobani and the American Dream

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Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya Credit: The Kurdish Project

On January 19th, the Wall Street Journal posted an interview with Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya. The conversation took place during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. WSJ reporter Deborah Ball asked Ulukaya about a hot topic this year in Davos: income inequality. Specifically, Ball asked how this issue might be affected by the new administration in the United States.

Ulukaya responded that in terms of shrinking income inequality, “in the end it comes down to people like us, the CEOs and the business people.” From Ulukaya’s point of view, change does not necessarily come from legislation or from other branches of government. He sees the business community as the true agents of change. Tanenbaum Deputy CEO Mark Fowler agrees: “More and more we are seeing corporations play a critical role in social change. This has been especially apparent in terms of LGBT rights, for example, when companies signed amicus briefs advocating for marriage equality.” And it is not stopping with that issue.

Chobani Employees | Credit: Alexandra Hootnick for The New York Times

It is important to note that Ulukaya has faced criticism for employing a large number of refugees, many of whom are Muslim. Ulukaya explains that Utica, NY, where the original Chobani plant is located, is a refugee resettlement area – and that resettlement is not the end of the story for a refugee. He said that many refugees do not have strong English or an established network, so they need to find work to support themselves and their families. “The minute they have a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee,” says Ulukaya.

In light of the recent executive orders barring citizens of seven Muslim majority nations, Chobani joined over 95 companies opposing the ban by signing an amicus brief supporting Washington’s and Minnesota’s lawsuits against the executive order. The amicus brief highlights the ban’s “significant harm on American business, innovation, and growth.” Ulukaya also said that the ban was “very personal” for him as he came to the United States as an immigrant from Turkey.

Tanenbaum praises Ulukaya for being a champion for inclusion and social justice, both in the workplace, for the community and for the environment. The breadth of his commitments also shows up in his dedication to sustainability, where he again maintains that companies and business leaders have important roles to play. These goals are supported by the Chobani Foundation, which focuses on food accessibility, supporting small businesses, and investing in the communities where they operate.

Despite accusations of wanting to “drown the United States in Muslims,” his true goals are equity and economic development—for people of all backgrounds. Prioritizing values while maintaining economic growth is the mark of some of the world’s most successful companies and business leaders. Fowler points out that this is reflected in the diversity efforts of many successful companies: “Companies invest in diversity not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for business.”

For more information on the business case for religious diversity, see Tanenbaum’s 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion.

Liz Joslin
Workplace Senior Program Associate