Hamdi Ulukaya grew up on in a family of semi-nomadic shepherds and cheese-makers in the Kurdish region of Turkey, not far from the Euphrates River. In 1994, he managed to make his way to New York to attend college and learn English.

Three years later, while working at a farm in upstate New York, he added a few business classes at the nearby state university.

While his father was visiting him there, they found themselves commiserating about the poor quality of the local feta cheese and the watered-down, over-sweet goo that Americans called yogurt. The father urged his son to begin importing the family’s feta cheese, and he agreed. By 2002, Hamdi had opened a small factory making the kind of authentic feta cheese he’d grown up with.

In 2005, he bought an abandoned Kraft yogurt factory in the area, with help from the Small Business Administration and state government. He wanted to make the kind of “strained” yogurt that he’d known in Turkey. Thicker and richer, with more bite and protein.

Hamdi was inspired to name the company Chobani, which derives from the Turkish word for shepherd.

Soon, he brought in specialists from Turkey and scoured the country for the equipment he would need. Then he rehired some of the laid-off workers from the plant, and together they went to work. While the employees repainted the facility and set up new production lines, Hamdi spent two years perfecting the process of making what we now called “Greek” yogurt.


By 2012, Chobani had reached $1 billion in sales and Hamid was a billionaire employing more than a thousand manufacturing workers. When he started, “Greek” yogurt represented just 1 percent of all yogurt sales in the country. Today that number is 50 percent.

Last week, Hamdi announced that he was giving 10 percent of his company to his employees, based on their length of service. For most, that will mean a $100,000 to $150,000 windfall. Some will become instant millionaires.

There are many lessons for Maine from Hamdi’s story. One is that turning energetic and skilled immigrants away is a crazy thing to do, especially in an economy like ours that needs those things. It reminds us that immigrants come in all sizes and shapes. Some are unskilled and simply looking for opportunity. But a great many others, particular those who are fleeing wars and famine, come with extensive education, skills and talent. And they tend to create jobs at a faster rate than we do now.

Blending all immigrants together into one big group may help politicians build coalitions of anger, but it is dumb economics. Growing economies need infusions of energy and talent, wherever those ingredients come from. Trying to grow an economy without those things is like baking bread without yeast. It doesn’t rise.

The Chobani story also demonstrates that tomorrow’s big companies are often incubating among today’s small ones. And that great ideas and new products often come from other cultures that we can learn from. That’s cross-fertilization is how human societies have grown, and how America grew. In this case, it’s about yogurt. Who knows what it will be tomorrow?

We’ve had a hard time, over these last few years, with this issue of immigration. With little thanks to our current governor — the child of not-distant immigrants himself — our long-standing uneasiness with people from away has been fanned into open hostility to people who are “different.”


In a recent speech, the governor went so far as to mimic foreign accents, in the way we might expect from either an insecure and deranged adult or a child who doesn’t yet know better.

All of it has created a shameful spectacle for a state that was once known for its decency, common sense and ingenuity but is now seen around the country as a place consumed with angry division. This has been a period in our history that we’ll spend a long time repairing.

The issue of immigration has become one of the defining moral and economic challenges of our time. It is one that none of us can simply observe from the sidelines. The immigration discussion asks us to choose between inclusion and exclusion, and between hope and fear. And it challenges us to reject the ancient human fears of “the others” in order to make Maine a welcoming state for everyone who wants to help us build the future together.

How we decide that question will define what kind of Maine the next generation will inherit from us.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is the owner of Caron Communications and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” and “Reinventing Maine Government.” He can be reached at:

[email protected];

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