For Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, hiring refugees is a no-brainer

NRF 2023: The founder of Tent Partnership for Refugees on the positive impact businesses can make
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor
January 17, 2023

While so many in the world these days have no idea what to do with refugees, Hamdi Ulukaya has a clear plan: Hire them. Doing so will provide exponentially more than just a wage.

Refugees are often most concerned about where they’re going to live, where they’re going to work, where their children are going to go to school, and where they’re going to feel safe and accepted.

And every one of those needs, Ulukaya said at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show, can be filled through a job — “especially in an organization that welcomes you.”

As for the organization? “You’ll have the most loyal workforce you have ever seen,” he said. There will be innovation, creativity, loyalty and work ethic — and not just among the refugees.

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“The effect that they will have on the rest of the company is unbelievable,” he said. “They will remind what it means to be safe. What it means to have a job. What it means to be able to go to your home and be with your family.”

Ulukaya joined Phil Wahba, senior writer, Fortune magazine, for a conversation that covered Ulukaya’s own immigrant journey from Turkey to the United States; his experiences in hiring immigrants and refugees at Chobani; and the evolution of his latest effort, a nonprofit business coalition of more than 300 companies committed to supporting refugees through hiring, training and mentorship.

He founded Tent in 2016, and the team works to uncover talents and challenges among the population, as well as collaborate with human resources on opportunities. It’s free for companies to join the partnership, and both small and large companies take part. Larger companies, however, might be more willing and able to make a commitment.

From a business perspective, Ulukaya said, it’s more than just a good thing to do.

"The minute the refugee has a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee. These are people who never give up."

Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani

“We can talk about how devastating this is, or we can talk about how we can make an impact by making this win-win-win for everybody. The minute the refugee has a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee.” And in his experience, “these are people who never give up.” They find ways to survive and to adapt.

Wahba offered a few statistics on refugees in the United States. Since 1980, 3.1 million have arrived in the U.S.; up to 125,000 are still received each year.

Chobani’s emphasis on hiring immigrants began in the company’s earliest days, during the 2007-08 economic crisis. Ulukaya was looking for workers for his burgeoning yogurt company, and he heard there were refugees from Africa and Southeast Asia in nearby Utica, N.Y., looking for jobs.

As he tells the story, they didn’t speak English, so he found translators. And they didn’t drive, so he got buses. Things were unfamiliar for the refugees, and he admits he didn’t fully know what he was doing, either. But he knew they could figure it out together.

As Chobani continued to grow, Ulukaya started to see how life was changing for his workers. He was seeing interaction among 17 different nationalities and 15 different languages. They were impacting each other, impacting the company and impacting the community, all in positive ways. And he wanted to take those learnings elsewhere.

Ulukaya was recently at the Poland border, where millions have fled Ukraine. Nobody saw that refugee crisis coming, he said. “But that’s the thing. This could happen anywhere, to anybody, for any reason.” He’s seen refugees from a variety of areas, and the emotions can be similar — especially loss.

In the meantime, retailers, brands and others have a powerful opportunity to provide a sense of community, stability and humanity, as well as to raise their voices, he said. And it doesn’t have to be political. It is simply an “amazing time” to be able to help refugees from a number of crises — and to do so in ways that meet everyone’s needs.

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