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Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya wants an “anti-CEO” revolution

The anti-CEO is about community, responsibility, and accountability–not maximizing value for shareholders.

Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya wants an “anti-CEO” revolution
Hamdi Ulukaya [Photo: Bret Hartman/TED]

It’s not that Hamdi Ulukaya doesn’t believe in the power of business. He does. The CEO of Chobani, who emigrated to the United States from Turkey as a young man who spoke no English, fell into the role of entrepreneur almost by chance. The story of how he found a flyer advertising the sale of an old Kraft yogurt factory in upstate New York in the trash and decided to buy it, ultimately launching what would become the multibillion-dollar company Chobani, has become business world myth at this point.

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But he also believes that the status quo of business today is fundamentally flawed. “It’s time to admit that the playbook that’s guided businesses and CEOs in the last 40 years is broken,” Ulukaya said on the stage at TED in Vancouver. The idea of maximizing profits solely for the purpose of benefitting shareholders is, to Ulukaya, “the dumbest thing I’ve heard in my entire life.”

While Chobani is, by the numbers, an incredibly successful company, it’s not a traditional one, and Ulukaya is not a traditional CEO. From the outset, he’s prioritized hiring refugees and paying above-average wages, while offering benefits like comprehensive parental leave. What prompted Ulukaya, after all, to purchase the Kraft yogurt that was shutting down, was meeting the people who worked there. “The company wasn’t giving up on yogurt, it was giving up on them, as if they weren’t worth it,” Ulukaya said. “I was so angry at the CEO far away, in a tower somewhere, looking at a spreadsheet and closing the factory. Spreadsheets are lazy: They don’t tell you about people, they don’t tell you about communities,” he said. “But unfortunately, this is how too many businesses are run today.”

[Photo: Ryan Lash/TED]

On the stage at TED, Ulukaya laid out his idea for a different way of doing business–one that he’s tried to advance himself through Chobani. Just as in stories, people who achieve great things through unconventional means are often called the “anti-hero,” Ulukaya wants to see more anti-CEOs: business leaders who break away from the prevailing people-over-profits model. And he calls for a new model–an anti-CEO playbook–to bring about the change.

Ulukaya’s anti-CEO playbook is simple, but presents a revolutionary approach to running a company.

“The anti-CEO playbook is about gratitude,” Ulukaya said. “Business should take care of their employees first.” In 2016, Chobani offered employees shares in the company to ensure that when the company profits, they all do. “I couldn’t see any other way,” Ulukaya said. It’s time, he added, for leaders to recognize that it’s a company’s employees who guarantee its success, and should share in it.

Furthermore, Ulukaya said, “the anti-CEO playbook is about community.” He slammed the fact that “today, the businesses that have it all ask communities, ‘What kind of tax breaks and incentives can you give me?'” Businesses, he said, “should go to struggling communities and ask, ‘How can I help?'” When Chobani went to build a second plant, the company looked to Idaho. Ulukaya spoke about how he met with people in the community, learned what would benefit them, and offered training and educational opportunities at the factory, which is now one of the largest yogurt factories in the world. “Go to communities, ask for permission, be with them, and succeed together,” Ulukaya said.

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Adding to that, “the anti-CEO playbook is about responsibility,” he said. The current playbook calls for businesses to stay out of politics. “The reality is that businesses, as citizens, must take a side,” Ulukaya said. That includes supporting refugees–30% of Chobani’s workforce in upstate New York are immigrants and refugees–and addressing pernicious problems like climate change and income inequality. “Business is in the best position to make a difference in today’s world, and business must take a side,” he said.

But ultimately, “the anti-CEO playbook is about accountability,” Ulukaya said. If businesses are positioned to make a change in the world, the CEOs have to remain open and responsive to the needs of their consumers and employees. When Ulukaya founded Chobani, the 1-800 phone number listed on the side of the package was his direct line. “Sometimes, I made changes based on what I heard,” he said. Businesses need to channel the expectations of their consumers, and CEOs–or rather, anti-CEOs–must set aside their ego to enable that.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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