Ben & Jerry’s founder reflects on company, socially conscious business mission
Claire Rafford | Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, discussed the history of his company and ethical business practices in a lecture Tuesday evening in the Mendoza College of Business as part of the College of Arts and Letters Dean’s Fellows speaker series.
Greenfield gave the audience a detailed account of how Ben & Jerry’s was founded. Greenfield and his childhood friend, Ben Cohen, were at a standstill in their lives, he said. Both in their twenties, Greenfield had been rejected from medical school twice and Cohen was working a series of odd jobs in New York before they both decided it was time for a change.
“Ben and I were failing at everything we tried to do, so we thought, why don’t we get together and do something that’s fun — be our own bosses,” Greenfield said. “And because we had always liked to eat, we thought we would do something with food, so we just picked homemade ice cream.”
Greenfield and Cohen opened their first ice cream parlor in an abandoned gas station in Burlington, Vermont in May 1978, and sales went well during their first summer of operation, Greenfield said. However, the winters came, bitterly so, and people naturally decided to buy less ice cream so the pair decided to start selling tubs of it; first sales were to local restaurants, then to restaurants all around the state to stay in business. Little did they know, Greenfield said, that this practice would give way to the Ben & Jerry’s pint.
“Ben thought that if he could start packaging the ice cream into pint containers, he could stop off at mom-and-pop grocery stores that he was passing by from one restaurant to another,” Greenfield said. “So we started packaging ice cream into pints … and that is how Ben & Jerry’s stumbled into manufacturing ice cream and delivering it.”
But making and selling ice cream is just one aspect of the Ben & Jerry’s business. In the second part of his lecture, Greenfield discussed the company’s deep-rooted dedication to social responsibility and honest business practices. It started with their public campaign against Pillsbury because of their refusal to let two large ice cream distributors carry Ben & Jerry’s — they feared it would detract from sales of Haagen Dazs, a Pillsbury company. So, Greenfield and Cohen started a campaign entitled “What’s the doughboy afraid of?” and sought support from their loyal customers, the media and the general public, eventually winning their case. After that, though, Greenfield and Cohen began to feel that they had stepped away from the original mission of their company.
“We were kids of the sixties, and we had a really negative opinion of business,” Greenfield said. “We felt like our business was just becoming another cog in the economic machine.”
Just when Greenfield and Cohen were considering getting out of the business, they received some wisdom from an old friend, Maurice Perper. He gave them the advice that made Ben & Jerry’s what it is today, Greenfield said.
“If there is something you don’t like about the way that business is done, why don’t you just change it,” Greenfield said.
Thus began Ben & Jerry’s mission to make their business different. Instead of pulling in venture capital — a small number of elite investors — when they needed economic support, Cohen and Greenfield held the first ever public stock offer in the state of Vermont, giving the community control over part of their business. Greenfield said they also began the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation to grant money to nonprofit organizations, but were overwhelmed by the sheer number of worthy causes that needed help.
“As we thought about it, all the foundations in the country are in the same situation,” Greenfield said. “There are these tremendous unmet human needs and not enough money to fulfill them. We started to wonder both why that is and what more business could do.”
Greenfield and Cohen decided that business and improving the community did not necessarily have to be two separate entities.
“The solution to the dilemma is to find those courses of action that have a positive impact on both of the bottom lines — making money and giving back to the community,” Greenfield said.
They decided to find ways to help others and their business at the same time, he said, such as buying brownies for their popular chocolate fudge brownie flavor from a bakery run by a religious community that supports people who have fallen on hard times economically. The company also has about a dozen “partner shops” — stores owned by non-profit social service agencies who work with at-risk youth. The money the shops make funds their programs and provides jobs for these adolescents.
Greenfield said he and Cohen believe that Ben & Jerry’s socially conscious mission is part of what makes their business work so well.
“Just because the idea that the good you do comes back to you is written in the Bible and not in some business textbook does not mean that it is any less valid,” he said. “We are all interconnected, and as we help others, we cannot help but be helped in return. For businesses and people, it is all exactly the same.”