As a 20-year-old son of Turkish nomads, Hamdi Ulukaya gave his first speech. He was nervous, but he told the dozens of people who were with him in a small town near the Euphrates River that he was going to write about injustice and human rights abuses. He would publish a newspaper to tackle political injustice.
“I had no idea how to publish a newspaper,” he says. “I did it anyway.” It was that newspaper that got him in trouble with the government, he explains, leading him to flee Turkey, immigrate to the United States, found the yogurt company Chobani, and started what would become a coalition of more than 200 companies seeking employment. for and support for refugees around the world.
On May 13, Ulukaya stood before a crowd of recent Northeastern University graduates in Boston’s Fenway Park, urging them to make a difference in the world as he has. Looking at their 20-year-old faces, he said, seeing himself at age 20, “I can tell you you all have the same fire in you.”
“I hope you don’t turn away from the things that make you uncomfortable,” he advised the audience. “My wish is that you turn to them, look them in the eye and work for the rest of your life to change them.”
Ulukaya founded Chobani after seeing a listing for a recently abandoned dairy in an economically depressed area of upstate New York. With the aim of employing as many people as possible – with a living wage and good fringe benefits – he developed Chobani into the best-selling Greek-style yogurt in the country. Along the way, he was told to keep quiet about his passion for helping and hiring refugees or else his company would be boycotted and he’d lose everything he’d worked toward. “I said, ‘If I’m going to lose everything, I’m going to tell the truth,'” he says.
Ulukaya uses his personal wealth to fund the Tent Partnership for Refugees, his global non-profit organization. He has also signed the Giving Pledge to commit most of his wealth to philanthropic endeavors.
There’s an irony the graduates have to face, he says: their generation is considered fragile snowflakes by some older people. “But here’s the truth: Your generation has had more junk in your path than just about any other generation in history,” he says, pointing to the Great Recession, mass shootings, social media bullying, racial injustice and the Covid-19 pandemic . “And we know you survived them all.”
“Innovation doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable. Progress doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable. Change doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable,” Ulukaya told the graduates, letting them know they were all ready to create the change in the world they are pursuing – be it politicians to get serious about climate change, or executives to make diversity, equity and inclusion real priorities. ‘Of course I don’t have to tell you this. You are the poster children of uncomfortable.’