Hamdi Ulukaya was born in 1972 to a Kurdish family in Turkey. His family owned and operated a sheep, goat, and dairy farm near the Euphrates River in İliç, Erzincan Province, where they made cheese and yogurt. The family often led a seasonally semi-nomadic existence tending and herding their flocks. Ulukaya is uncertain of his exact birth date because he was born during one of the family's mountain treks.
After studying political science at Ankara University, in 1994 Ulukaya moved to the United States to study English at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York. In 1997 he moved upstate and transferred to the University at Albany, State University of New York where he enrolled in a few Business courses.
He ended up taking a job on an upstate farm. During a visit, his Father persuaded Ulukaya to import the family's feta cheese from Turkey, after tasting the inferior cheese available locally. When the imported cheese proved popular, Ulukaya opened a small wholesale feta cheese plant of his own, called Euphrates, in Johnstown, New York in 2002. The venture was modestly successful but by the two-year mark it had just barely broken even. Ulukaya later recalled, "It was two years of the most challenging days of my life."
In the spring of 2005, Ulukaya noticed a piece of Jun K mail advertising a fully equipped yogurt factory for sale in South Edmeston, New York, 65 miles (105 km) west of his feta cheese factory. The 84-year-old factory had been closed by Kraft Foods. Although he initially threw the flier away, Ulukaya toured the plant the following day and decided to buy it, against the advice of his attorney and Business advisor. Ulukaya financed the purchase within five months with a loan from the Small Business Administration, plus local business-incentive grants. He initially named his new company Agro Farma, and hired a handful of the former Kraft employees. As a first task they painted and repaired the neglected factory.
In October 2007, he shipped his first order of Chobani, a few hundred cases, to a grocer on Long Island. The store repeated the order the following week.
After BJ's and Costco began carrying Chobani in 2009, the company doubled its sales every year through 2013. With an eye on Australian and Asian markets, in 2011 Ulukaya acquired Melbourne dairy Producer Bead Foods, and began Manufacturing and selling Chobani in Australia. In mid 2012, he initiated a $88.5 million expansion for the company, acquiring 100 acres next to its upstate New York facility and building an 80,000-square-foot addition. The expansion was partially funded by $1.5 million in New York State grants for economic development.
From establishing Chobani, Ulukaya has given 10% of his company's net profits to charitable causes, and to individuals and organizations working toward positive long-lasting change. In 2010 he established the company's charitable arm, the Chobani Shepherd's Gift Foundation, now called the Chobani Foundation, to manage this philanthropy. Donations have included major grants to support famine relief efforts in Somalia, and to underwrite the New York City Pianos project launched by Sing for Hope.
In 2012, he opened Chobani SoHo, a Retail yogurt cafe in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district. The cafe offers various exotic and gourmet dishes using flavors of fresh Chobani yogurt and gourmet toppings, as well as sandwiches, soups, and coffee.
Strained, or "Greek" yogurt as it is called in the U.S., is much thicker, creamier, and tangier, with a higher protein content, as the whey is strained out. To manufacture strained yogurt, Ulukaya needed a million-dollar commercial machine called a milk separator, which the American-style Kraft factory did not have. He found a used one in Wisconsin and negotiated to buy it for $50,000. On his trip to pick up the separator, the name "Chobani" – a variation on çoban, the Turkish word for shepherd – popped into his head.
Ulukaya has been noted both for his entrepreneurial skills and also his commitment to making affordable and nutritious foods using only natural ingredients. In addition to receiving awards for entrepreneurship, in April 2014 he was named by President Barack Obama as an inaugural member of the Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE) initiative – 11 selected Business Leaders who will encourage entrepreneurship in the U.S. and abroad. Also in 2014, the Culinary Institute of America honored him with its Leadership Award (Augie Award) in the Health and Wellness category.
In November 2015, Ulukaya was honored by the Children's Aid Society with their Corporate Leadership Award. He was honored in recognition of his passion and his commitment to lasting change in the lives of those in need around the world.
Ulukaya was featured by CBSNews' 60 Minutes on April 9, 2017 in a segment called "Chief of Chobani" that focused on his approach to Business and philanthropy.