ILLUSTRATION BY FABIO CONSOLI
Chobani is renowned for being socially conscious. The yogurt producer’s founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, has helped to revitalize industrial towns such as Twin Falls, Idaho, and hired refugees and veterans. One of the company’s more altruistic initiatives is Chobani Incubator, which offers $25,000 in funding and four months of training and networking opportunities to fledgling American food and beverage businesses. Program participants represent a wide range of ethnicities, gender identities, education levels, and locations. (Diversity often isn’t a priority for venture capitalists; in 2018 only 2.2 percent of VC investment in the U.S. went to female-founded companies.) Even better, there are zero catches: Chobani acquires no equity in these startups. Here, Chobani Incubator Director and Head of New Ventures Zoe Feldman explains why her company has become a true angel investor.
Why does Chobani engage in this equity-free investing?
Hamdi Ulukaya believes that business can be the ultimate source of social good. This was born out of his vision for creating an altruistic program that would give back to the broader community in the food and beverage industry.
Who does the Chobani Incubator target?
Any founder entrepreneur based in the U.S. who has a consumer packaged goods business in the food and beverage industry with some minimal viable product in the market. We have founders who run the gamut from rural- to urban-dwelling, folks who immigrated to the U.S., people who are the first in their family to go to college, people who have been entrepreneurs before, and first-time founders. We typically receive between 550 and 600 applications. We accept six to eight companies, so it’s highly competitive, but we’ve really been intentional about focusing on a more diverse and inclusive cohort.
Does having a diverse range of entrepreneurs change the products?
Absolutely. I’ll give you a good example, which is hot sauce. It’s interesting to see the differences between hot sauces among cultures. Korean hot sauce is very different from Mexican hot sauce, which is different from Jamaican hot sauce. Not only has hot sauce become a staple, but it’s able to tell a rich narrative about cultures and communities.
Why are female, LGBT, and minority entrepreneurs still securing so much less venture capital than white men?
Because white men own [most of] the funds, and they make decisions based on supporting people who look exactly like them. There are funds who have come out and said, “Part of our mandate to our limited partners who are writing the checks is that 20 percent of our capital has to be distributed to women.” Well, that still means 80 percent of your capital doesn’t have to be distributed to women.
So is there a limit to how much we can depend on businesses to make socially conscious changes on their own?
I think consumers are driving this, especially younger generations. If
priorities in 2020 are not around environmental issues or recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, I don’t know when they ever will be.
5 COMPANIES SUPPORTED BY THE CHOBANI INCUBATOR
Seal the Seasons
Delivers locally grown seasonal fruit to grocery stores nationwide. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2019
Makes bottled matcha tea products and runs retail cafés in New York and Los Angeles. Brooklyn, 2018
Sells tortillas, corn, and flour produced by traditional maize farmers in Mexico. Los Angeles, 2018
Imports sustainably farmed Afghani saffron; founded by U.S. military veterans. Chicago, 2017
Kettle & Fire
Makes antibiotic- and hormone-free bone broth from grass-fed beef and organic vegetables. San Francisco, 2017