Chobani CEO urges companies facing labor gap to hire refugees: ‘You will have the most loyal and motivated workforce you’ve ever seen’

Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, at its offices in New York.
Photograph by Levi Mandel for Fortune

When Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, took over an abandoned factory in upstate New York in 2007, he needed more workers to help scale his fledgling yogurt business. He’d heard that the town settled refugees, but many still struggled to find work. So he hired the first of what has been hundreds of refugees working at Chobani over the years.

Thus began Ulukaya’s long-standing effort to help refugees integrate into American life, which he says has been a wise business decision because employees are grateful for work, loyal to the company, and less likely to attrit. Beyond humanitarianism, Ulukaya stresses the business case for hiring immigrants and wants more companies to follow his lead.

“You will have the most loyal and motivated workforce you’ve ever seen,” he tells Fortune. What’s more, he says, it has made the $2-billion-a-year yogurt company a more desirable employer among young people wanting to work at a business known for social good.

In 2016, Ulukaya launched the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a nonprofit foundation aimed at getting Big Business to help refugees find work. The organization has worked with 300 corporations, including Fortune 100 companies like Pfizer and Amazon, to help hire refugees and fill labor gaps. The entrepreneur, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Kurdish part of Turkey in 1994, says that for all the political rhetoric around the issue, there is plenty of corporate support in the U.S. and Europe to bring in larger numbers of refugees because companies need them. “Today’s environment is different because of labor shortages,” he says.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: Chobani started hiring refugees very early in its existence. Putting humanitarianism aside, what are the business benefits? 

The minute a refugee has a job, they stop being a refugee, but their experience stays with them. These are people who never give up. They will find a way to survive, they’ll find a way to adapt, and they are eager to work.

Refugees make up a sizable percentage of your workforce. How does that translate into the kinds of workers they are?

If you are smart, not just if your heart is in the right place, you want these people to be part of your organization and part of your communities, and that often gets lost in the political conversations. You will have the most loyal and motivated workforce you’ve ever seen. Not only that, you’ll see an enormous amount of innovation. And the effect they will have on the rest of the company is unbelievable. They will remind people, including immigrants like me, what it means to be safe, have a job, and go home to your families. These are simple things that people take for granted.

Given some of the anti-refugee rhetoric we’ve seen in recent years, how do you get buy-in from local communities?

That’s the power of business. I think the climate regarding refugees is very different from what it was in 2016. Companies, CEOs, and brands are powerful and can create a real sentiment about refugees. Companies can play a big role in this time where people are unified in wanting to help refugees from Afghanistan who helped U.S. troops, or from Ukraine by hiring and training refugees and using their voices to counter any unfortunate sentiments about refugees.

What issues do refugee workers face that an employer can assist with? It’s easy to imagine many have post-traumatic stress disorder, culture shock, et cetera.

Refugees’ number one worry is where they will live, where their children will go to school, and where they will feel safe and accepted. Those questions can be solved by getting a job at an organization that welcomes them and makes them part of a community. These people have different traumas. But by adjusting policies to adapt to those traumas, having conversations in our HR department, and bringing awareness in the company that they might have some shortcomings, you can dramatically change those people’s lives.

The Biden administration has brought refugee admittance targets closer to historical averages of 125,000 a year. How do the prevailing political winds affect Tent’s work?

Today’s environment is different because of labor shortages. With this administration, it is less political, and I think the Afghan refugee situation helped us because so many of them helped our military in Afghanistan. For Europeans, Ukraine is very close to them. We know the political landscape will go up and down, yet we see acceptance of refugees coming into our towns and villages.

How does this effort to recruit refugees help with talent attraction?

We do an annual study that shows that if brands hire refugees and put it out there, it is one the highest reasons for consumers to buy or use your service. For recruitment, for young populations, we see many leaning toward companies that are hiring refugees.

In September, Chobani scrapped its IPO plans. Might you revisit this decision in the future?

I have given 15 years of my life to this company. When the conversation about an IPO came up, there was a lot of talk about value generation. For me, disrupting food in this country is one of the noblest, hardest things to crack because the whole food system is a mess and in the hands of a few companies. To be able to disrupt it, to make magic moves, you need capital. An IPO serves that purpose. It would benefit us to expand, and I’m still open to it, but we don’t need it.

Get to know Ulukaya:

  • In 2005, he came across a shuttered yogurt factory for sale in upstate New York. He bought it with a Small Business Administration loan and focused on yogurt that was less sugary than what Americans typically ate. 
  • Chobani was named to Fortune’Change the World list in 2017, the same year Ulukaya was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people
  • Ulukaya was named an Eminent Advocate by the United Nations refugee agency in 2016.

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