[2019] Ben & Jerry’s co-founder talks origin of ice cream empire, social responsibility for businesses

Ben Cohen (left) and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, attend a protest in Washington, November 2019 (Patrick Semansky - AP)

The Gazette  /  April 29, 2019

In 1978, Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield likely would not have believed he’d one day watch Iron Man and the Hulk discuss his then-fledgling storefront ice cream in a multibillion-dollar ‘Avengers’ movie.

Though Greenfield did not personally arrange for the name dropping — and the company’s revolving 40 or so flavours never included ‘Stark Raving Hazelnuts’ or ‘Hunka-Hulka Burning Fudge’ — he mused, ‘It’s funny to me that, from this little ice cream shop that Ben (Cohen) and I started 40 years ago, that (Ben & Jerry’s) has become kind of a cultural reference for people. I never would’ve imagined anything like that.’

Greenfield will give the keynote address on the first day of EntreFEST, set for May 16 through 17 in Cedar Rapids. The ice cream innovator plans to discuss ‘entrepreneurial spirit, social responsibility and radical business philosophy’ in connection with the $300 million global business he helped build

[EntreFEST is a two-day conference, celebrating the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation where professionals at every level come together, share ideas, and own their success; eds.]

Greenfield said in a phone interview with The Gazette that he and Cohen did not see themselves as becoming businessmen or starting a career when they opened the first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor out of a gas station in Burlington, Vt., both at age of 26.

The pair had spent their young adult years ‘pretty much not succeeding at what we were trying to do’ — Greenfield was rejected multiple times from medical school while Cohen worked odd jobs, including delivering pottery wheels and driving taxis.

Greenfield said he and Cohen decided to pursue an ice cream business because they knew they wanted to work together and both enjoyed eating.

‘It was not a lifelong dream, it was sort of something to do for a few years,’ he said. ‘We thought we’d do it for a little while and then move on to something else.’

Looking back, Greenfield said he often wonders what might have been, and for the sake of Ben & Jerry’s ‘it was an incredible stroke of good luck that I never got into medical school, for me, personally.’

Greenfield said Ben & Jerry’s idea of ‘social responsibility’ evolved over time, from throwing small community festivals and contributing ice cream locally to partnering with national and international not-for-profits over broader topics.

Ben & Jerry’s historically has voiced support for the Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements, and the business currently is partnered with Advancement Project and Colour of Change to address criminal justice issues, including disproportionate imprisonment of minorities and prosecutorial accountability.

Greenfield and Cohen sold the company to Unilever for more than $325 million in 2000.

Greenfield today is involved in with the Institute for Sustainable Communities, Businesses for Social Responsibility and TrueMajority, an advocacy organization, according to EntreFEST.

Cohen also remains active in promoting social justice as well as political causes, including as a national co-chairman for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.

Among Greenfield’s take-aways from his business’ approach are that ‘social responsibility’ and financial success are not mutually exclusive.

‘Our experience has been exactly the opposite of that. The more caring and giving Ben & Jerry’s has been, the more successful it’s been,’ he said.

He added businesses should not refrain from taking on polarizing subject matter out of fear of alienating segments of consumers.

‘As Ben would say, you’re never going to get 100 percent market share, so you don’t have to worry about losing some customers,’ Greenfield said. ‘It’s much more powerful to bond with people over shared values, which are a very, very powerful thing and much more meaningful to people than just a humorous advertising campaign.’

Also helpful, he said, is that ice cream can serve as a ‘wonderful gateway’ into discussing more pressing causes.

‘People have such a positive emotional response to ice cream, and it allows Ben & Jerry’s to talk about issues in a somewhat light-hearted, whimsical way through ice cream flavours, but the issues themselves are very serious,’ Greenfield said.

‘I think it does give Ben & Jerry’s an ability to talk about issues that otherwise might be difficult to approach.’

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)