3 Powerful Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From This Billionaire ‘Anti-CEO’

Hamdi Ulukaya

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
April 19, 2024 at 4:1PM UTC
Chobani founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, came to America with just $3,000 in his pocket. He was coming from Turkey, where he says he didn't have much. But he ultimately made it to the States, where he first owned a small cheese shop. And, since, he's built a multi-billion-dollar yogurt business.

"I grew up in Turkey, in a similar environment, near the Kurdish mountains — my family made cheese and yogurt, and I grew up listening to shepherd's stories," he says in his TED Talk. " We didn't have much, but we had the moon and the stars, simple food and each other. Eventually, I came to America. I didn't even know New York had farms. I made it to upstate, and I never left."

In his talk, Ulukaya says he took one of the most important drives of his life on a cold January day in 2005.

"I was on this road in Upstate New York trying to find this old factory [because] the day before, I received a flyer in the mail that said 'fully equipped yogurt plant for sale,'" he explains. "I threw it in the garbage can. And, 20 minutes later, I picked it up and called the number. The plant was 85 years old, and it was closing. So, I decided to go see it. At this time, I wasn't sure where this road, or my life, was going."

While Ulukaya may seem like he's lived the quintessential "rags to riches" American dream, he's actually a self-proclaimed "anti-CEO" who calls the shots from his "anti-CEO playbook."

Here are three lessons you can learn from this self-made billionaire.

1. Know that business is about more than numbers.

When Ulukaya first went to visit the closing yogurt factory, he says in his TED Talk that he was so angry that the CEO, far away, was sitting there looking at spreadsheets and deciding to give up on the company.
"Spreadsheets are lazy," he says. "They don’t tell you about people; they don’t tell you about communities. But, unfortunately, this is how too many business decisions are made today.”
Ulukaya explains how impressed he was with the people at the factory, all gracefully working to close it, without anger or tears. He was in shock.
"I was never the same person after what I saw," he says.  So he called his lawyer and, with the help of several loans (because he had no money!), he had the keys to the factory by August 2005. And the very first thing he did was hire four of the original 55 people, who helped him to paint the place, polish it up and eventually, within two years, hire most of them all back and then thousands more.

2. Get to know and trust your team.

"In painting those walls, we got to know each other," Ulukaya says in his talk. "We believed in each other, and we figured it out together. Five years, me and all of my colleagues, we never left the factory. We worked day and night, through the holidays, to fix that plant. The best part of Chobani for me is this: The same exact people who were given up on, were the ones who built it back up 100 times better than before. And they all have a financial stake in the company today."

3. Treat your employees fairly.

"CEOs have their employees suffer for them but, yet, the CEOs pay goes up and up and up, and so many people's are left behind," he says in his talk. "I'm here to tell you: No more. It's not right; it's never been right. It's time to admit that the playbook that has guided businesses and CEOs for the last 40 years is broken. It tells you everything about business, except for how to be a noble leader."
That's why Ulukaya has created a new playbook "that sees people again" and that "sees above and beyond profits." His anti-CEO playbook stresses gratitude, community, accountability and taking care of employees first and foremost.
Watch Ulukaya's full TED Talk here:

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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