Elliot: And I just want to start by asking you “the story.” You come to America. Can you just tell us about that first factory?
Hamdi: The first factory – by the way, Elliott thank you. I'm so honored to be with y'all. I wish I had known about this a while ago I would have come to every single one of them.
I am in my cheese plant, which my father encouraged me to do because I'm Kurdish, I'm from Turkey, and when my father came to visit one day, he said, “They don't have good feta cheese here. Why don't you make some?”
And exactly the same way, I laugh at him. I barely laugh at my father. And it’s like, I didn't come 2,000 miles away from home to make exactly what I was making. Sorry, there’s no way I'm doing that.
But the short story – to make the story short, I started this small cheese plant I almost killed myself in it the night, like around 6, 7 o’clock. I’m a messy person, my desk is always messy, even now, and I'm once every 10 days or two weeks I go through them and I clean them up.
And I came across this mail like a junk mail it said “fully-equipped yogurt plant for sale.” And I look at the back and there was some pictures of the plant and the equipment, and [I] just throw it into garbage can, continue, I'm smoking, drinking tea, whatever.
About an half an hour later, for some reason, I went back into the can and I take that ad and look at it, like now it's dirty and I call the number and the guy answered. Real estate agent in Utica. And he said, “Yeah, it's a plant, it's closing. Kraft is closing.” And I asked him then the price, he said, “$700,000.”
Now, I know daily equipment. I see the fillers, see tanks, there's no way this thing is $700,000. I mean, it's – it sounded very cheap to me. Not that I had $700,000. So I decided to go visit it next day. My cheese plant is in Johnstown and this place is in South Edmeston, and there is no app to follow it, so it took me four hours to find it.
And when I got into the factory, [a] gentleman named Rich, who's the production manager, met me and he gave me a tour all around the factory and there were about 45, 50, 55 people. They were closing the factory, they were making things ready, wrapping things up, turning off the lights.
The first, the first thing came to my mind was how sad. It was it was very sad, there's the sadness in the environment. The second thing came to my mind was how amazing job these guys were doing closing this factory. They were paying attention to every single thing. And I said, who does that? Like, your job is about to be eliminated. This place, after 75, 80 years is about to close and it's done. It's finished. There's no more, and they all know it, but they were still trying to do their best to close the best possible way.
So when I left the factory, I immediately called my attorney, his name is Mario. I said to Mario, “Mario, I found a yogurt plant, it's for sale, it's not very expensive, I want to buy it.”
He says, “Wait, wait, wait.” He says, “Tell me one more time.” I keep telling him and keep telling him in in broken English, you know, all that kind of stuff. Mario said, “See, see...the largest food company in the country, Kraft, is closing this factory, and they're getting out of the yogurt business. Who the fuck are you, like who are you.”
Like that kind of conversation, right. And I said, “Yeah, you're right.” I mean seriously. So I called them back in the same drive again I said, “No Mario, there's something there. I really think that.” He says, “How much is it?”
“So you don't have the money. You have not paid me in the last six months, and there is no way you're getting that kind of money... your cheese plant is worthless, you haven't made money yet.”
And that was my visit and leaving from the plant. There was no reason to think that this plant would [be] worth anything or something can be done in this plant or anything like that. I had no plan or idea, it was just pure feeling. Working in that place, I felt like there's something here.
And later on I read I read this line from Rumi he said: When there is a ruin, there's a treasure. And treasure for me was the people. I think those people who were giving their best to it and the guy who show me the factory made me convinced that even though this is the end, there's something amazing in here. If you see it, you should stay. You should stay for it. And that's why I did.
Elliott: So how many years ago is that
Hamdi: That is 2000– January of 2005.
Elliott: And so then what happened
Hamdi: Then the shit start happening. I get an SBA loan.
Elliott: How, you called the SBA, you said what? How did you get an SBA?
Hamdi: There's this guy, John Ryder and Pat Mucci. Pat Mucci passed away. There's the two [most] heavenly bankers I've ever met in my life and I have not met since. They were small banks, small bank, key banks, regional sales people, and Pat Mucci came to me, says, “You look like you're into something here. There is this thing is called SBA loan program.” Is 401 something, I don't remember 100%. And they said, “If we get the SBA to tell us we guarantee the loan 50%, we think we can get the rest. You have to come up with 10% and we get the 40%, we can get this done. So why don't you write a business plan.”
This first business plan I've ever written in my life, and Pat got it. Pat got me the loan. $700,000 plus $300,000 for everything else. And August of 2005, I had the key for this factory.
The first thing I did is to hire five of the 55 people from that plant. So it's Maria, Rich, Mike, Frank, me. So we were five. And the first board meeting was August 17, 2005 in an office, but the chairs were all over the place and the water is dripping, you know, the fan is old it's literally from the movie. And Mike looks at me and says, “So what do we do now?”
So these are my first five employees right. And these guys they had never seen a Turkish guy before.
Elliott: And these five employees, you had to let that you to let go, or [Kraft] let go of the other, the original 50? And you had made a commitment you hired five back.
Hamdi: Yeah, so I asked the manager, I said, “If I one day wanted to bring this plant back to life, tell me five people I should hire.”
And he said, ”You need to get Maria because Maria knows everybody – suppliers, she knows all the office things, and everything else. You need to get Rich because Rich is the production guy who knows everything about the production. You need to get Frank, he runs the wastewater plant. Because without the wastewater side, you cannot run this. There's no city wastewater, it's middle of nowhere. And you need to get Mike because Mike has been in this plant for 20, what 30 years, retired, came back. He knows every pipe, every wire, everything. He can fix anything, he can make you. So you need to get him”
I said, okay, so we got them all. It was those four and myself. And the first board meeting, I call it “poor meeting,” the first meeting they're looking at me. So Mike says, “Hamdi, so what do we do now?”
And what bothered me the most was the paint outside. It was white in, who knows, maybe in the 60s and 50s, but it's dark now. It's black. And I think I can fix that. So I said to Mike and the others, I said, “We're going to go to the hardware store, we're gonna get some white paint and some other paint, and we're going to paint the walls outside.”
So I think they were like, is this guy real or what. And I didn't do it to make a case or to be funny or to, like I had no statement-making mentality at that time. I’m just, the only thing came to my mind, Elliott, is today. I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow, I have no plan, I have not much money, I have no experience, this is just – I'm following my guts. I got in here, the only thing I can come up with today to do is to paint the walls outside.
And that summer, that summer, we painted all those walls. And there was a bar across the street, it [was] called Crocker's, and this was a bikers bar. You know, the Harley bikers bar. And I've seen these guys in the movies, they're pretty scary. And they were just in front of me and they were like, “You guys forgot that corner ah ha ha ha.” You know, “paint that,” I mean, the amount of joke that they were making to us while we are painting all those walls in the old factory.
But that's what we did all summer. That's 2005. The first cup of yogurt came out of that plant in October 2007, the first Chobani.
Elliott: When you bought the plant, did you know you want to do Greek yogurt?
Elliott: And so how did you have that idea?
Hamdi: I start going into the stores.
Elliott: So you knew you had a plant to make something.
Hamdi: But I didn't know [what]. [Laughter]
Hamdi: I knew– I knew America did not have good yogurt, as a consumer, because I would, I couldn't find any yogurt.
In Turkey, I mean they eat shitload of yogurt. I mean, we eat a lot of yogurt, and it's good, and everybody has it. But you live in upstate New York, you go to stores, there's these cups – you don't know if they're yogurts or candy or whatever the hell they are. And as a consumer, as someone who wants to eat, I couldn't find it. So I do, I did, think that yogurt needed.
But there was this thing people were saying that Americans will not eat yogurt unless it's very sweet, they don't like texture, they don't like acidity, they don't like this, they don't like that. And when I was going to New York, I would go to stores like Whole Foods or, you know, specialty stores, and all of those places, and I was seeing these, you know, people were buying this yogurt like from Greece, you know, from other places. And I would wait and ask them like, people like me, I understand. But people like you? Why are you buying this?
And, you know, and I would ask them, “Why you're buying this?” And then it turned out that I come to this understanding that it's not that Americans would not eat good yogurt. It just doesn’t exist. And the manufacturers, they, they really believe in this lie, even though they knew it was a lie, because it was cheaper to make it. I was completely convinced.
The question was, how do I make this, because I don't want to make what the Kraft made. Kraft made the shit, the Breyer’s. I wanted to make the real one. That meant I need to have a separator, I need to have a different filler, I need to have different process and all that kind of stuff. And I don't have a lot of money, so I start going into the junkyards of daily equipment, and there was one in Madison Wisconsin.
And I went to Chicago, and I drove– drove from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, to go to this secondary equipment dealer to buy this main equipment called [a] separator, where you feed the milk, and then [it] spins and spins and spins, and it takes the water out and makes it thick.
If you buy new, it's about a million and a half [dollars]. If you buy used, like that particular machine, he was asking for fifty thousand [dollars], which I can live with. So I went there, and then the guy asked the other guy, says, “Hey Pete, where was that?” They're talking with each other. They finally find that [separator] way out, you know, outside of the warehouse. Then we're all looking at this, is this gonna work? It's been there for 25 years.
And in that drive from Chicago to Wisconsin, I don't know if any of you have done it, that was my first time. The only channel [that] will work was a Christian channel in the radio, like, you know, so I'm listening to this.
I don't know if that's the reason, because they talk about shepherds and all that kind of stuff, I said I found the name I'm gonna call this Chobani. And Chobani means shepherd in Turkish.
And so I bought that $55,000 separator, went back to Chicago, went to my hotel room to look at it – it was, you know, Chobani dot com was available. So I got the separator, I got the brand, I was all set.
All you do, and I sometimes think that those four or five people painting those walls, you know, in that summer of 2005.
Two years from now, we're going to launch Chobani. We're going to launch yogurts here called Chobani. And in the minute we launch it, people are gonna go crazy for this. People are gonna love this. This is one of the most beautiful things ever been done, and we're going to do – not go to specialty stores, we're going to go to heart of America, where everybody shops, and we're going to make it, you know, really accessible price, and you know, 5,000 cases, 10,000 cases, 20,000 cases.
Five [employees] is going to become ten, twenty, hundred people. This plant is going to be the largest yogurt plant in the East Coast. Heck, it's going to be the largest plant in the country. We're going to pump 1 million cases out of yogurt here in five years. We're going to reach a billion dollars in sales.
This whole town is going to change, you know, this bar is – we're gonna buy that bar. This to me is the most painful thing I've ever done. The guy charges us three hundred thousand dollars [for] that shithole.
And then, we took that, we're going to take that stuff, and then we're going to build a massive warehouse in here. It's going in three months, and then we're going to put a bridge from the plaque to the warehouse, and every 15 seconds we're going to pump one pallet of yogurt from that plant through the bridge into the warehouse ship all around the country.
And we're going to do this all independently. We're not going to take a penny from anybody else, and we're going to hire refugees or we’re going to build one of the largest yogurt plant in the world in Idaho.
So imagine if I'd said all of those things – this is all going to happen in five years, right. So Mike probably would have told me, “I think you're smoking something really, really heavy.”
Like, there is no way this thing can happen. Do you understand, to buy one filler – we only have one tiny little filler, it took me eight hours to pack 120 cases on October 2007. In order to be a billion dollars in sales, you have to have 30 fillers, and each filler takes one half years to build, another year to make it work.
You need– that old separated that you just bought from the junkyard, you need 10 times more in a faster separator, and you need 25 of them to be able to make that kind of volume. So logically, it doesn't make any sense. Logically impossible, physically impossible.
But the catch was – and I think I talk too much – that in that tiny town, it was five people with the surrounding. Between the anger or passion or love, whatever you call it, we found a way to elevate ourselves. We were not in a real world anymore. The real world input did not matter to us. We were just gonna find a way to make this happen, and I became part of this whole thing. I became part of Mike and Maria and Rich – wherever I came from.
That how people just closed things, they just left. And ordinary people paid the price. And the decisions are made in a high tower offices and looking at the spreadsheets and cost, you know, cutting the cost and stuff like that. And I was just fed up with it. And I had never done anything like this before. I've never been going to business school, I never knew anyone amazing entrepreneurs and community like this. I had never worked anywhere else other than the small cheese plant. I never had anyone [who] was part of this, that had done this before. So we are in a completely outside of this whole world, and we worked together. I have seen heroes, I have seen iron fists, heart, passion from ordinary people. And then I have seen the community start coming in, coming in, coming in. Being part of this dream.
And I never walked in there – even today – as an owner, as a founder. I always walked in there as part of them. And it has been the one of the most amazing journey of my life.
Elliott: So after you got the SBA loan, and you had five people that painted the walls, and you went to Madison, Wisconsin, and you got the website, and you got the name – what happened in the 18 months or the two years before you launched? You had no revenue – how did you get the $55,000, and how did you survive those 18 months? What happened in that period?
Hamdi: Very good question. So I had about $2 - $300,000. I had been very, very careful about those things. So I got to work I have a yogurt maker Mustafa and I start making yogurt in the lab, in the kitchen. I went to Turkey, I went to Greece.
The problem with it, is you make a yogurt– and I wasn't going to use any stabilizers or, you know, preservatives and anything like that. I wanted to keep it simple. I want to keep it natural. If you use the right cultures and right mix things and all that kind of stuff, it might be okay for the first week, in two weeks, in three weeks. And then on the 30th day, on 45th day, it could go down south. So whatever you make now, you might– it might take you two months to find that if you have done it right or wrong. So it took me two years to perfect the recipe. Like two years. In those two years, I never left the factory. Every day I was in the factory playing with it.
Elliott: What time would you arrive and what time would you leave?
Hamdi: Oh, you know, I lived in Cooperstown. Not for baseball ,I lived in Cooperstown because it was the middle town between between South Edmeston and Johnston. So sometimes I would go to my cheese plant, sometimes I will go to the this new old plant. So I mean, you know, sometimes nights sometimes days.
Elliott: But nights would you sleep on the couch?
Hamdi: That happened after we start the production. So, after the start of the production, when we launched it – for example, I'll tell you something about the cups, Elliott.
I mean at that time, I wanted to make this cup wider – 95 millimeter – because I didn't understand those, you know, like tiny cups, like opening and just spoons wasn't going in or anything like that. So I wanted to make [the cup] wider and it didn't exist.
So I called all the cup manufacturers in the country, like all the big ones. Some would never call me back, some will say, “oh we don't have that mold, in order for us to make that mold you have to pay $250,000,” which I don't have. So everything was pushing me to give up on that cup idea. But I also wanted to sleeve it, so I can have a beautiful strawberry pictures and beautiful graphics and all that kind of stuff. But I knew this was the only shot I had, and I was very intense about it.
And somebody said there's a factory in Colombia, country Colombia, that they are FDA approved and they have the mold and they can do the sleeve. I said, okay, where is Colombia.
So I went to Bogota, and I met the people there and they show me they can do it. I said fine, we ship it to me, so we made it. And they were up, they were here to start with the small guys. It's funny, and they said, “While you're in here, do you wanna go see Cartagena and see the sights of Colombia.” They were very kind, nice people.
So I'm my way back – it's a funny story. On my way back, I landed in Miami, and as I came to the custom, the officer said “Yeah come, come.” And I said, okay. And he said, “Yeah, where you coming from?” I said, “I come from Colombia.” So, “Ok where did you go to Colombia for?” I said, “You know, I have an old factory in upstate New York.”
So, I have a Turkish passport, and, you know, at that time, Turks were very known for the drugs and all that kind of stuff, you know. And I said, I have a plant in upstate New York and I'm going to start yogurt, and I wanted to buy the cups from Bogota.
The guy was laughing. He said, “This is the best story ever,” you know, “Where is this shit, tell me where the shit is.” I think understand what he was saying, I said “What, what the cup or the yogurt?”
He hold me there for two hours, he said ,“I still don't understand this shit, but you can go.” So we bought our cups from Colombia for two years. The only reason I went to Colombia [was] because I could not find a 95 millimeter cup where I can sleeve, and [it] has a specific foil on top of it for strawberry and blueberry, because it's not generic like it was before. And I wanted it to look nice – these were the details, I mean every single details like this I spend time on.
Once I launched it, the first customer was a kosher store in Long Island, a very small store. The second customer was ShopRite in New Jersey, and the guys were asking $50,000 for each cup to be in the shelf, they called a slotter fee, you know, I don't have the money. So if I put five of the flavors in there – and this is early 2008 – it will cost me $200, $300 thousand dollars, right. I not have that kind of money.
And we said, “Can you charge us as you sell?” You know, once we sell it, we can charge every week so much of it. And the guy said, “What if it doesn't sell – how am I gonna get my money?” We said, “We're gonna give you the factory if you don't [sell].”
And the guy says, “Is this real?” I said, yeah. [He says], “What am I gonna do with that old factory?” [I said], “I don't know, look, like I'm trying to find a solution here.”
And that buyer – I am still very good friend with that buyer – he let me put the cup in there. And a week later, he called me a week or two weeks later, he called me back and said, “I don't know what you're putting into these cups, I cannot keep it in the shelf. I have never seen anything like this.”
That was the moment that is good and bad. That was the moment I realized that I really overdid this. And that was the moment I realized that this was not going to be about making– I'm, no– sorry. This was not going to be about selling, because selling is going to be easier now. This was going, this is going to be about if I can make it enough.
And that was the time I decided that I had to be in the factory for a while, which I had been for the last two years before that. And I knew I was going to be staying in the factory.
Elliot: When– when you launched, how many team members were there?
Hamdi: We've got about 15 or 20– 15 or 20 factory workers in that time.
Elliot: And how, you know, at that time, and then maybe say in a year or two years after – how was your factory different? There's lots of factories and companies–
Hamdi: So when we launched it, it was exactly the same except we had the separator from Wisconsin, we changed the fillers little bit.
Elliot: And really in terms of the culture and the team.
Hamdi: Yeah, they – in the beginning, they did not believe me, of course. It's like, who's this guy? What is he doing? Like, is this real, serious? Kraft just left after 90 years, like it doesn't make any sense.
I don't blame them for it. In the second year, they were seeing me that I was always there, I was always there, and I was always there. I think they felt sorry for me. They just, they just wanted to do it with me. But once we launched it, once the stuff starts showing up in the supermarkets, and people are buying, I did not leave the factory for the first five years more than probably collection of few weeks.
I literally have a blackout. Literally blackout from 2008, early 2008, 2007 to 2012, I do not know what happened in the world. Total dark. I am in the factory from morning to midnight beginning, and when I wake up, people said, “Do you realize what you just, what you have just done?”
And I'm still eating pizza at Frank's, sleeping in a small bedroom 1 bedroom apartment in upstate– in, in Utica, I'm almost, I almost killed myself but I'm super focused, all-in, outside of the whole universe in that factory, in that town, making yogurt, finding solutions.
I mean, I turned toilets into offices. I found ways. I brought one time 150 trailers used them as a cooler until I built my cooler. I mean there is nothing outside of safety of the food, the taste of the food, everything else was open to play with it.
We had to find solutions, and I saw people like, one by one, one by one, one by one. And then the community start coming in like, in the beginning, excitement, you know. It's like you're building back from the ashes. And I saw contractors, all the local contractors, the electricians, the truck drivers, the farmers, you know, everyone. And then local community, everybody, this became our thing. And we were gonna kick ass. We just– nothing was going to stop [us].
The culture is the combination of everybody's good side, everything that we had. I mean, we all have good and bad, we all have shortcomings and all that kind of stuff, that everything– We were, we were going to give our best to this place because it was the new hope. It was the rewriting the history. It was about the forgotten people's real values, and, you know, you live in a small town, you know what I'm talking about. And we were just gonna find a way to do this. And I was there with them.
Elliott: When were you able to look outside and start thinking about how you would help the community you're in besides hiring them? You have a story about a Little League field, for example.
Hamdi: So that came from Cassie, who was my first assistant I've ever had. And she came to me, and we made a promise before we sold the first cup: 10% of everything that we make is going to go back to the community, or the world, whatever it is. 10%. I mean, it was easy to write because we had no sales, right, at the time.
Kidding aside, Cassie came, says the town said that the Little League field needs some help. And she showed me some pictures, it was just weird grass, some lines.
And it was our second year, we were, we were making some money now. I mean we were very profitable after we reached the 20,000 cases. I was extremely careful about every penny. I run the company until it was six hundred million dollars in QuickBooks. I'm not kidding. I don't know if anybody here [is] from the QuickBooks, but we sold six hundred million dollars worth of yogurt on QuickBooks. I wanted to keep everything extremely simple and I did not want to make any mistakes. I did not want to make anything that I don't understand, and I don't know a lot of things at that time. I just wanted to understand everything I do in a very, very fast way, until it gets so complicated.
And we had no investors, we had no board, we had nothing, so we would make decisions very fast. We understand how much money we have, we knew what to do with this, we kept it extremely simple. We asked advice from anyone, but nobody is there to give us advice.
But, anyway. So, so, I have to understand. So basically it was Italian mom-and-pop store. That's how I run the whole thing. Now, it's complicated, I don't understand anything about it. So, so, when we made a little bit of money, Cassie said, there is no field. And that was my opportunity. The first time, since we started this journey, is an opportunity to do something.
And I said, “Cassie, we're not just gonna clean up this grass, and put some lines.” I remember, I lived in Cooperstown, and I remember how kids were so excited about baseball. I don't understand the damn game. I have– I grew up playing football. But I saw those kids get so excited about the team and the game, and then, you know, the balls. It reminded me when I was little boy, you know, how we were excited about playing soccer.
And I said, “I want to build a Little League baseball field in our town better than the one in Cooperstown. And I want every contractors in the town to come together, and we built this together.” And, not only I wanted to build something fancy and say “look what they've done.” That's not the idea was. The idea was how can we get all of us from what we have built to build something for our children.
And my message, and softly, was going to say is, our children deserves the best, and this community deserves the best. Everything else is the noise. And we did it. We built a baseball field with a, you know, lights you could play at night, the score card, you know, the barbecue, plays and sitting area, all the ads, and all that kind of stuff. It was the most beautiful thing.
And I did open up in fourth of July in 2010, and in my first– my life, first time, I drove the first pitch. And the kids came to me, and they were asking me to sign something, and I didn't realize they were asking me to sign their shirts. There was the first time in my life anyone asked me to do that.
And those kids will never forget how they felt that moment, and I will never forget how they feel, and hopefully some of those kids are going to make some other kids feel that special one day. But that was the moment, that was the first time I understood the meaning of the whole thing. It made sense to me at that moment, and we've been hooked ever since.
Elliot: What's an anti CEO
Hamdi: Anti-CEO is, you know, I did the TED talk, you know, the anti-hero concept.
I grew up in the mountains as a nomad. My background is, we go up in the mountains, we make cheese and yogurt, we come back, you know, you're close to the stars. Beautiful life. But it's not easy, so the business the CEOs, the rich is extremely distance from us. And not only that, to us it's dirt because of how they behave, how selfish they are, you know, all that kind of stuff.
So for me, business– the world of business was far, far away. Far, far away. The magic happened when I came to U.S., and especially went to upstate New York and I saw a different side of businesses. I saw the community businesses. I saw the traditional businesses. People who make differences.
When I started it, I didn't realize it was all about money. It wasn't all about money, it was about this journey, entrepreneurship. You want to make things happen, you might– you want to use God-given creativity, intelligence, knowledge, experience into something that you [are] extremely passionate about because you see something is wrong and it can be better. You see something is not right, it can be better. And in the end, money is a tool that you can make things happen with it.
And when I saw that, that something that I hated the most became most magical tool for me, and I became very friend with the money. And later on I realized that it's not the business of the field of businesses or entrepreneurship, it's the CEOs or it's the board or is the investors or whatever it is pushing them to have one purpose, and one purpose only, [which] is to make money for the shareholder. That the sole purpose of the business is to make money for, you know, value for the shareholder.
And I realized that this actually happened 40, 50 years ago. Before that, it was all about stakeholders. It wasn't all about you know, purpose of making value for the shareholder but the stakeholder who are the stakeholders. Stakeholders are your employees, your community, the people that you serve, and greater humanity. These are all your stakeholders, including your shareholders.
So the purpose of your business is to be responsible to your stakeholders. So anti-CEO is this, is to go from sole purpose of business to be a, you know, responsible to shareholder, to all the stakeholders. You know, we have all these conversations happening around it, around the world, and I, you know, I got involved with, you know, good side of the business – is getting them involved with refugees and all that kind of stuff.
And we're talking about this – we are not even being close to be the reality, because every, every businesses in a high scale rush scale is “what is my return.” That's the only thing that you look for. But people like entrepreneurs, like in this room, conscious, collective understands that this cannot go any longer based on looking at the world and all the problems that we're facing.
I'm involved with the refugees, but look at all the other stuff that we're facing – income inequality is in massive, massive place today. You know, you look at the world where poverty, you know, in and, and then, and then, in the same country you look at the, you know, some of the rich ones where the wealth is distributed.
You look at all the issues that we're facing, gun violence, income inequality, you know, gender, climate. You look at everything that we face and you're looking at the government's failing and the NGOs, you know, capability of being able to respond to all of these things. You have one institution can be extremely powerful and impact more than anybody else and sustainable, is business.
And it's not– it cannot happen in the way of “here, I give hundred dollars for girls in Africa and scholarship” and all that kind of stuff. That's bullshit. That's check the box. That's– that's called corporate social responsibility.
What [anti-CEO] means is, everyday, when you act as a business, you have this consciousness of, not only I'm not going to damage my stakeholder, I'm going to elevate my stakeholder. I'm going to make sure that everybody benefits from this, and that happens from the early on. And that was lucky for us, that we started that way. That it's not in the side way, it's actually embedded [in] what you do every single day.
Elliott: So, when you went to your second factory, most companies they look at cities to move and they ask, okay I'll pick the city based on who can give me the best deal. What did– what did you ask?
Hamdi: I said, “What– what can I do in this community? Is this a community.”
Elliott: Like, and what, did you go meet with the commissioners or the mayor? How did it work? You literally asked–
Hamdi: Well, I– I wanted to build a second plant and we knew it was going to be on the West Coast. We went to California, Utah, Arizona, a couple other states and they said “you need to stop by in Idaho as well.”
I said Idaho? Idaho, okay. So we went to Idaho and the governor you know said hi – I mean he has a big cowboy hat, boots, and you know it says hi to me in Turkish. And I spent like three days there, went to different communities. It was just this feeling. I knew this was a small community, unemployment was very high, and the only industry they had was potatoes, but I could understand this is– this is the people I can work with. We can we can be part of this community.
By the time I left, I told my team, “This is where we're going to build.” And they said, “Based on what?” Like, you just, you know, you're the first Turkish guy they have ever seen in here. I said “No, no, I got the connection, I think this is the place we're going to do.”
I just came back from Idaho now this morning. I was gonna come last night but I couldn't because all night we were making something very, very special, which we're going to launch in January. And I was with the team loading packing and this morning finally at 10 o'clock – it took us 18 hours. This has been a six months project. We finally finished this morning.
You go to Idaho today, we built 1.3 million square feet plant in there. The total investment that we made in there is about cost $1.1 billion. We have about 1,200 people working there. The annual– and the annual impact Chobani has in the community is about three to five billion dollars. The city of Twin Falls is completely changed, I mean you should see downtown, it's the coolest shit ever.
You observe, see, and this is probably the most conservative state in the Union. The red state, the second red state, is also Idaho. And that's how it is, and outside of this political noise and all that kind of stuff, you know, I know what I think when it comes to social issues and all that kind of stuff. We don't agree with those things. But I have the best friends, colleagues, [and] in the dominant things we agree.
And what I realized is, it's not that they are against this and that, it's about making connections and having a conversation. And even if you don't agree, [at] least we don't hate each other. We sit down and share stories about families, and I trust them and they trust me.
And Chobani became very Idaho. Like, you come and visit – you don't live too far – you'll see Chobani is very, very Idaho, as it is in upstate New York. But the only reason this happened is no walls. No walls. This is not mine, it's everybody's. If everybody joins, it doesn't get less, it gets bigger.
Elliott: Do you personally sit with the team members in the factory and sit with the community, whether you're at the bar or restaurant, and talk about immigration, for example? And you, are you getting into it and having real discussions?
Hamdi: Yeah, we do, and when we did that in the first time – it's a great question – I said, I know what you feel. I mean, Idaho government was the first one to ban refugees coming to the– coming to Idaho. But yet, Twin Falls in Idaho was one of the one of the main refugee settlement area, just like in Utica. And 30% of our employees not only in upstate New York, but also in Idaho, are refugees from 15 different countries– 19 different countries. All kinds of people, hundreds of them, and, and you know there's this – I give you an example.
There's this two girls, I don't know how much time we have.
Elliott: Three minutes.
Hamdi: There's two girls. They lost their dad in Afghanistan. Taliban. And they were 13 and 14, and the mother thought that the danger is not over, they had to get out of here. And they– whatever [money] they have, they give it to smugglers, and they ask them– to ask the smugglers to take them to Ukraine, somewhere outside Afghanistan. And as they come close to the border, the smugglers said to the girls and the mother, he says I cannot take you all of you at once, so the mother needs to stay behind, I'm going to take the girls out to the to the inside, and then I will come back and I will take the mother.
The mother screams, said no no no no no no no no, I'm not separating from my girls, since without that, I'm not gonna do it. And, of course, the girls go, he takes the girls and bring [them] to the town on the other side of the border, and then mother never comes. He never brings the mother.
So these two girls, here in this new place, no money, no one to know, just lost the mother, 13 and 14, they don't know anybody, I mean, it's just– So one Afghani family finds them on the street and says well, you can stay in the kitchen for a day or two until you find out what you want to do, until your mother comes. They stay in that kitchen for four years.
And one of them knew how to speak English little bit, connected to a Jewish refugee organization in that town where they were working with the Jewish refugees in Ukraine to U.S. And she's working there as a volunteer, and the woman who connected with her is from Ohio, says well, we should apply for them through the U.S. here for the refugees to settle in the U.S. as well.
And in 2013, these two girls, and at a time now they were 17 and 18, they were settled in Twin Falls Idaho in the same week that we opened the factory. And that the refugee settlement organization in Twin Falls and said, there is this new company here, they hire everybody. And these two girls, they come to the plant and they said well they have never worked anywhere in their life. They just came here, you know.
And they said, okay it's okay. And our people said, it's okay, we'll train you, it's okay, we'll do all that kind of stuff. So they came in and the, the– but I [had] been doing the walk and I saw one girl in tears, in the first week, in tears.
And [she] comes and says – she can't talk, she's, I know she's trying to say something but her tears is not allowing to be able to say it. And I push everybody out, I said, "Sister, relax. Take your time. Tell me what you need to tell me." And she tell me, "My sister is not right here because she's in the other line, but I'm – thank you." She just wanted to cry, I think.
And these two girls, from that moment to a year ago, they got job they, got permanent job, they get more comfortable, they get a rent a place an apartment, and then they get another rental apartment, they made it bigger.
I did not give them anything, just provide them work. That's it. And trained them. Just we do it for everybody else because I don't believe in handout. Of course, it's a community that we must take care of each other if somebody is in trouble, but job is enough.
That's what they want – opportunity for them to shine. Opportunity for them to have built for themselves. They don't want handout, no none of them do, just give me an opportunity. I might be having some shortcomings but I will catch up, I will get there, just promise, I promise you, I will get there, just give me an opportunity. In a silent ways, that's what they're saying.
These two girls, absence of their mother, by themselves in a foreign country that they never thought they would be – because they had an access to a job and because of that job they had an access to a community, some other ones that come from other part of the world and some of them is been in the Idaho for hundred years of their of their family journey, they get a car they get better, they bought the house, they got better, one of them started school at night college they got better, and then one of them said, okay, I'm going to go full-time because she got a scholarship because her grades were so amazing.
Before that we were sponsoring Team USA to the Olympic team, and there was an Olympic Games in Brazil, and from our factories we pick so many workers with their families to go to the Olympic game so they can cheer for Team USA there.
And everyone in the factory anonymously picked these two girls to go to Brazil and cheer for Team USA, which they did. And the other one did the same thing and they both move on and flied out, and then one of them finished the university in an honors degree and the other one is in the middle of it.
So when they asked the sister and they said, where is your family, where's your mother, where's your dad? The girl– the woman, who picked her in Ukraine is his Jewish refugee organization is married to a Christian guy in Ohio, and they adopted them in a you know in an emotional way. And they said– she says, “Oh my mom is Jewish, my dad is Christian, and I'm Muslim, and I work at Chobani.”
And this is in Twin Falls, Idaho. This is real. I got to know this country really well, and I know we're going through a massive amount of disagreement. What's going out there, it hurts me. Hurts me dramatically. But this country matters. Twin Falls, Idaho matters. Upstate New York matters. This– this town matters.
But what matters the most is this country gave all of us, including myself, to reach out to our dreams that it was not possible anywhere else around the world, and we owe that. We owe that. And, and I think what I if you ask me, and Elliot I want to finish it with this, with this note. I know this crowd, these people here are innovators, forward-looking people, and they know what the world needs to be shaped around this connectivity, this consciousness.
Elliott: I have on that a 20-second final question, which is that, before we came on, Shira made the request of this national campaign – will companies give maybe a partial day off or a full day off at elections. And you know, unprompted, you said you thought it was really–
Hamdi: Brilliant idea, and I'm gonna do it. Thank you, Shira.
Elliott: Let's give a huge round of applause, this was incredible, Hamdi Ulukaya.