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Leon Kaye headshot

Chobani Founder Faces Racism, Death Threats For Hiring Immigrants

By Leon Kaye

When Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he made both the business and moral case for the private sector to do more to tackle the global refugee crisis. After all, whether they are Syrian or fleeing violence in other countries, refugees often become the hardest-working citizens and strive the most to assimilate into their new home.

NGOs and government agencies only have the capacity to provide the most basic lifesaving and shelter assistance to refugees -- underscoring Ulukaya's reasoning that companies must do more. Creating jobs, insisted the owner of the popular Greek yogurt company, is the best way to cope with the flood of citizens fleeing from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries entrenched in war and sectarian violence.

Ulukaya grew up in what is now largely Kurdish Eastern Turkey and emigrated to the U.S. in 1994. He has long backed up his words with action -- remaining a steadfast and aggressive recruiter of immigrants, including refugees. Chobani often hires resettled refugees and has a reputation for paying a living wage.

In May, Ulukaya signed Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, with a commitment to give away most of his wealth to organizations that are helping refugees exiled from their former home countries.

But as the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Over the past few months, Ulukaya found himself the target of constant trolling on social media. A barrage of rumors and innuendo circulated on websites such as Breitbart. According to the New York Times, he even received death threats.

Never mind the fact that Ulukaya is living the quintessential American dream as a capitalist and employer of at least 2,000 people. After taking a loan from the Small Business Administration in 2005, he purchased a shuttered Kraft Foods plant in upstate New York, a region that long struggled to keep jobs and attract companies. Chobani’s success led Ulukaya to open a second yogurt plant in Twin Falls, Idaho; that 1 million square-foot operation contributes at least $1.3 billion to southern Idaho’s local economy annually.

What is ironic about the invective hurled at Ulukaya is that he is largely going against the grain in the world of business. Chobani already carries a reputation for paying workers a rate far above the minimum wage. And when Ulukaya negotiated a loan with the private equity firm TPG Capital in order to expand Chobani's operations in Idaho, he insisted he be allowed to give all of the company’s employees a stake in the company.

Those options were distributed earlier this spring. They could score newer workers a minimum of $150,000 if Chobani goes public or is sold; the longest tenured employees could become millionaires.

At at time when many American workers feel as if the system is cheating them – leading, some say, to the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – Ulukaya rewarded employees for being hard-working and loyal. Instead of moving jobs out of the U.S. or hiring cheap labor, he emerged as one of the most patriotic American business leaders as he is creating economic opportunities.

But Ulukaya included all Americans in this vision, including employees who happen to be Muslim and are from countries such as Syria, Turkey and Afghanistan. Hence we have ongoing protests against a man, and a hero, that are nothing short of a national embarrassment.

Image credit: Chobani

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye