Built environment | Urban Planning | Cities

Business must play a social role in communities

“A lot of companies have CSRs – corporate social responsibilities…It’s a good combination of words: responsibility is good, social is good, but what it stands for is being used the wrong way in so many different places. It’s used as a check-box,” Chobani Founder and Chief Executive Officer Hamdi Ulukaya has told a CEDA audience in Sydney.

“It’s just a check-box so you can talk about it and say ‘We’re doing this, we’re doing that’, – now, that’s a poison; that’s a trap… The practice of business itself, if it’s done right, is one of the most effective change makers in today’s society. More than governments, more than NGOs, more than anyone else,” he said.

Mr Ulukaya made the comments in relation to Chobani’s charter to donate 10 per cent of profits to the community, and what he believed the social role of business is.

Speaking on the company’s policy, he said “It’s in Chobani’s DNA. The first thing I did was print it on the yoghurt cups. I said 10 per cent of every profit that we make is going to go back to the world.”

Mr Ulukaya said the first thing Chobani donated toward was the development of a Little League field, and from then on donating became “an addiction”.

“From that moment on I built community teams and I said before we go anywhere into the world, we have to be here first. We have to be in our community first. We have to take care of our kids here. We have to elevate our community first, then we have permission to go other places,” he said.

“Now, imagine if you put that mindset of how you purchase, how you operate in your places, how you make your product, and what you do with it when you come back.

“Then imagine that that was believed by everyone who walked into that company: by the customer, by the supplier. And imagine that everyone who comes to the company every single day knows ‘When I go to work today, the way that I make something will have a positive impact’. Then it’s not work anymore.

“It’s still a business…we have to compete, we have to innovate, we have to crush our competitors. But instead of having checked boxes, the giving back is the reason for existing, in my opinion.”

As a company that has gone from five employees in 2007, to over 2000 in 2017, Mr Ulukaya discussed how culture can be maintained during periods of rapid growth, and what culture means to Chobani.

“I say that companies are not run, or governed, or operated by written rules on the wall. It’s ruled or operated by culture. It lives within the walls, it’s in the air. As entrepreneurs, we have the opportunity because we are starting things from scratch. So, we have choices to make in how we’re going to set the tone.”

Mr Ulukaya said Chobani built a culture of authenticity; of employees bringing their true selves to work, and a culture that said it’s okay to not know.

“I created a culture that said not-knowing is okay and accepted. But what we’re going to do is what we’re going to learn after that. What I made sure is that everyone can come to Chobani as who they are – their background did not matter,” he said

“Culture is not only built in the work hours of 9-5. Cultures are built in life. They’re built with seconds and minutes and hours… and then that combines and creates this thing we can call culture, or we can call it internal brand, and it’s like a living thing.”

In 2017, Chobani was named one of the top 50 most innovative businesses in the world, with Starbucks the only other food company to make that list.

Mr Ulukaya discussed how he saw Chobani as innovative, saying, “What we do is simple, pure yoghurt right now. Why is it that it’s so innovative? We have to look at innovation in the perspective of: you can be completely disruptive of an existing product – or you can go extremely back to what it was originally.

“Innovation is also seeing the status quo and not following what those big guys are doing. You can do it another way.”

He said he is always open to suggestions and new ideas, listing the recent addition of flavours and “flip-top” compartments, saying, “As long as the reason why we exist doesn’t change, as long as what we do every day doesn’t change, as long as the fundamentals don’t change: you can play with anything.

“That playing mindset creates speed and innovation. I love being fast and I hate wasting time. I hate when you come up with an idea and it takes you two years to launch it – that I don’t get.

“I hate wasting time and it’s OK to make mistakes. And hopefully you will make good decisions along the way and learn from it."

Watch Mr Ulukaya’s full question and answer session below.

Also speaking at the event was The University of Sydney Business School Dean, Professor Gregory Whitwell and Australia Post Trusted eCommerce Services and Group Chief Digital Officer, Andrew Walduck. Watch the presentations and moderated panel discussion below.