Famous Kurds

Hamdi Ulukaya

In 2016, Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Chobani — the yogurt brand which redefined the American dairy marketplace when it hit stores in 2007 — made waves when he granted 10 percent of the billion-dollar dairy conglomerate’s shares to his employees.

Ulukaya, born in 1979 in an eastern Turkish village to a Kurdish family of dairy-farmers, resolved to leave Turkey mid-way through his schooling due to the Turkish government’s treatment of Kurdish people. A self-proclaimed “Kurdish activist,” Ulukaya came to the United States, starting out his career by working to recreate the feta cheese indigenous to the Middle East and Mediterranean for the American populace. On a whim, in 2005, he bought a yogurt plant that the Kraft Company was trying to get off of its hands for $700,000.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ulukaya told reporter David Gelles that when he acquired the factory in 2005, Greek yogurt “[represented] probably less than half of 1 percent” of the U.S. yogurt market. Today, Greek yogurt holds over 50% of the market share of U.S. yogurt, and Ulukaya is worth $1.9 billion. At Chobani, 30% of all employees are immigrants or refugees, and the company has built a workforce that exceeds 2,000 people. This year, Forbes magazine honored  Ulakaya as “The Socially Responsible CEO.”

When Ulakaya named his company “Chobani,” he was harkening back to his parents’ roots as sheep farmers — “Choban” means “shepherd” in Turkish. A “shepherd” is, of course, a reference to the product itself. But “to shepherd” can also mean to act as a guide, a director, moving towards a goal or in a specific direction. It would seem, then, that the title of “Choban” is a double-meaning for Ulukaya himself, who is leading the charge on representing a new type of billionaire, and who, from his Kurdish roots to his status as one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People, has proven to be a “shepherd” in more ways than one.

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