Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s

On October 18, 2016, TCNJ students were given the pleasure to listen and speak to Jerry Greenfield, cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Jerry spoke to the audience about the unconventional start of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and how the company prides itself by spreading awareness of social and environmental issues. We were very grateful to sit down and interview Jerry before his lecture.

HC “You and Ben were very vocal about supporting every citizen’s right to vote with Democracy Awakening, why do you think it’s so important for the younger generation specifically to register to vote and to exercise that right, especially in this year’s election?”

Jerry Greenfield: “Well I think it’s important every election; I think the problem we face in this country is that elections are really controlled by campaign contributions, which are supported by millionaires and billionaires and huge corporations. So they are the ones who are really deciding elections in our country. We need people to speak out and get big money out of politics, and that’s why Ben and I were willing to get arrested in Washington, DC to try to help move that along.”

HC: “What made you and Ben decide to use your ice cream’s popularity to bring awareness to important and controversial issues, such as the launch of “Save Our Swirled” to bring awareness to climate change, and “I Dough, I Dough” to recognize the right of all couples to marry?”

JG: “I think businesses, particularly big businesses, are usually concerned about one thing, and that is making as much money as they can. And Ben and I have always felt like business is like a neighbor in the community, it just happens to be a wealthier neighbor, but that it needs to use its power and its voice to talk about issues and to bring about a more just and sustainable world. Otherwise, you have this incredibly powerful force- which is business- just thinking about itself and not thinking about the common good.”

HC: “Do you have any tips or advice for students who have dreams to start their own small business?”

JG: “My advice is that you should try to bring your own personal values into your business, because it will make it that much more motivating for you if you have something you’re doing that you’re passionate about and is aligned with your own personal values. I think for Ben and me it was also helpful to start small, because when you start small it forces you to learn all the ins and outs of a business- you can’t really through money at problems you have to get in right there and roll up your sleeves and figure it out.”During his lecture, Jerry first talked about how he and Ben Cohen, cofounder, met in middle school gym class, or how Jerry explains it, they were the “slowest and fattest kids in the class, and became friends in the back of the pack.” They were friends throughout school, and Jerry graduated pre-med from Oberlin College, with the goal to go to medical school, but was rejected twice. Ben never even graduated from college, dropping out of several schools. Jerry said that at this point, they were both “essentially failing at everything we tried to do,” so they chose to start a business together for fun.

Since they both loved food, the pair decided that their business would be homemade ice cream. They split the cost of a $5 course in ice cream-making and passed, and believed they were ready to open their own business. They chose to open the first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in 1978 in Burlington, Vermont, because it was so cold there that there was no other ice cream shops to compete against. They did not have much money, but with old equipment they made it work, and were successful their first summer. However, they realized that they needed to continue to make money throughout the freezing winter, so they sold their ice cream pints to local stores and restaurants. When a big ice cream distributer started selling their pints to big grocery stores around the state, they knew that something big was about it happen with Ben & Jerry’s.

It was at this point that Ben and Jerry reached a critical point in their business, when the big distributer (Pillsbury) that carried Ben & Jerry’s ice cream also carried Haagen-Dazs ice cream, who threatened to cancel their business with Pillsbury if they continued to sell Ben & Jerry’s brand. Pillsbury dropped Ben & Jerry’s, and the pair fought back with the “What’s the dough boy afraid of?” campaign. They encouraged customers to help by calling a toll free number they printed on their pints, and received nation-wide media covering the protest. Eventually, Pillsbury and Haagen-Dazs backed off, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was distributed across the country.

Ben and Jerry are not your typical businessmen. Jerry discussed how the company prides itself on having a different kind of business than usual. They didn’t want to just make profit; they wanted to have a positive impact on their community as well. They decided to “redefine the bottom line,” so the bottom line was not just about how much money the company made, it was also about how much they were able to give back to the community. Jerry said that most people thought this was a crazy idea, and there was no way that the new two-part bottom line could have a positive correlation. However, they were able to find plenty of ways to increase profits as well as give back to the community, such as buying chocolate brownies used in multiple ice cream flavors (they bought $5 million worth last year) from a nonprofit bakery that provides jobs for former addicts and ex-convicts.  Ben & Jerry’s has never been afraid to take a stand on controversial issues. They brought out ice cream flavors to bring awareness to climate change, gay marriage rights and voting rights. Ben & Jerry’s has been in the news and has amassed various opinions regarding their allegiance with controversial issues, such as police brutality. Just recently, Ben & Jerry’s publically aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. At the top of their website is a picture of the slogan, “Black Lives Matter”, and links to several articles on the issue. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has gotten a lot of criticism and backlash from several claiming that the movement ignores the struggles of other racial backgrounds, and that it is racist to White Americans, because of the focus on black lives. The typical response to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is #AllLivesMatter, and Ben & Jerry’s responds by saying, “All lives do matter. But all lives will not matter until black lives matter.”

Ben & Jerry’s social and political involvement might seem a little strange coming from an ice cream company. Some have even argued its involvement is mainly to sell more ice cream. Jerry Greenfield responded with, “Our actions are based on deeply held values.” Also, Ben and Jerry aren’t really businessmen, especially now that their company has been bought and they no longer are managers, their roles are really ambassadors. Jerry jokingly stated that since they’ve been bought by Unilever, they “have jobs where we have no responsibilities and no authority.” They represent the brand, and it is important to them that their values match the values of the brand, and that is not new. They have gotten arrested at the “Democracy Awakening” protests, to protect every citizen’s voice in the election and voting rights. We highly doubt that they would go so far as to risk getting arrested more than once just to sell ice cream; Ben & Jerry’s is an inspiring company that truly cares about bringing awareness to issues and making a positive impact on the community.