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The dream is free, the hustle on the other hand…


One of the highlights of the week for me was finding an entrepreneur I truly admire make Time magazine’s Most Influential People of 2017 list, Hamdi Ulukaya. Now in its 14th year, the annual list recognises the people who have helped shape the year with their influence on various spheres such as politics, sports, business and entertainment.

Of Ulukaya, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote, “Hamdi personifies the American Dream, showing that anyone arriving on US shores with drive and intelligence can make it – and bring others along with him.”

The Turkish CEO of Chobani, currently the biggest selling Greek (Well, Turkish, in my humble opinion) yogurt brand in the US, was born in 1972 to a Kurdish family in eastern Turkey’s Erzincan province where his family raised sheep and goats and made Tulum cheese, and only arrived in the US in 1994 with a suitcase of cloths and $3,000. The money lasted only a month, and once he was out, he had to rely on grit and graft to carry on living in a foreign land.


In 1995, his brother joined him and it was when their father visited them, the idea of a business was born and in 2002, using seed money from family members, Ulukaya went into feta cheese production. In 2010, it occurred to the entrepreneur, if he could make cheese, he could possibly try his hand at mass manufacturing what he was already making at home – strained yogurt. With a Small Business Administration loan of $800,000, he purchased a defunct Kraft foods plant in upstate New York which birthed Chobani.

Working non-stop for five years, Ulukaya turned the upstart company into the number one selling yogurt brand in the country with annual revenue topping $1.5 billion. Imagine – a shepherd boy from eastern Turkey making it in America. The American Dream personified.

Defined today as the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved, the Dream originated in the mystique regarding frontier life – the notion, as noted by the Royal Governor of Virginia noted in 1774, that “for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled”.

The truth is, American or not, frontier or hinterland, perhaps thanks to our nomadic ancestors, we are all driven to a certain extent by the “grass is greener” motto, felt far more acutely by those in the developing countries. In Turkey where I grew up, in the days when travel was not democratised as it is today, ‘abroad’ was a sign of making it. Only the elite went “abroad” or holidayed in Europe – the semi-mystical land where the laymen imagined the streets were gilded and from which the elite holiday returned, regardless of how few days spent there, with a broken Turkish. Much like the way some Nigerians spend two weeks in London and come back to Lagos ‘blowing phone’.

Thankfully as developing countries progress, renewed pride in our indigenous cultures take hold, and returnees start consecutive waves of brain gain, the “grass is greener” mentality is slowly dying. Yet many times speaking to young Nigerians I have heard mythical stories of how one friend went to ‘Jand’ and came back to buy a Lamborghini after six months or how this other friend was only there for a year and now he has two houses in VI and rocking designer gear. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a Nigerian phenomenon either.

Interviewing a Gambian returnee in 2007 for an article on brain gain, his words struck a chord, “I wish I had enough money to take these young people to London or New York for a week so they could see the reality.” More recently a friend in Ghana echoed the sentiment, “I wish they had the opportunity to travel and see for themselves life is hard everywhere,” she said, “Then they would not be fooled by a few tall tales.”


One such individual fooled by these tall tales was a friend of my husband’s who, deluded by the exaggerated stories of easy life in the fast lane, thought he could make a go of it in the UK for six month and go back home a rich man. Within a week he had no place to go, within a month no money, within three months the situation was so dire that he had no money for his flight as he decided to head home much earlier than his self-prescribed six-month Sabbatical. It’s almost been a decade since, he is so traumatised by the experience, he won’t set a foot in the UK. Let’s just say, his grass back in Ikeja is now kryptonite green.

As for Ulukaya, let’s not forget, he had family trade on his side and at least eight years of hard graft. If we think of those eight long years in terms the work he put in at 8 hours a day, 260 working days in a year, this would add up to a whopping 16,640 hours, almost 2/3 over the prescribed 10,000 hours believed to make someone an expert in their field.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a man can go ‘abroad’ for three months and come back driving a Lamborghini with a Rolex on his arm, waving his Amex, the chances are he is either good at the tables or has great penmanship with those Nigerian Prince e-mails. The rest of us are probably better off, wherever we may lay our hat, tending to our own grass and putting in those 10,000 hours.


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