Speaking at the Purdue Series on Corporate Citizenship and Ethics in November, Ben & Jerry's co-founder Jerry Greenfield delivered a rousing tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit, full of humorous anecdotes and radical business philosophy. He also illustrated the company;s hallmark sense of fun with the serving of ice cream to the entire audience. (Photo courtesy of the Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana)
Ben & Jerry’s co-founder talks ethics, ice cream
Jerry Greenfield, who with partner Ben Cohen built Ben & Jerry’s Homemade into
a corporate and socially conscious success, treated audience members at the Purdue Series on Corporate Citizenship and Ethics in November to both ice cream and a discussion of values-driven business practices.
Recounting many of the anecdotes from his and Cohen’s bestselling book, Ben & Jerry’s Double-Dip: Lead with Your Values and Make Money, Too, Greenfield said business should not only be socially conscious, environmentally responsible, and creatively managed with respect for employees, but also fun.
It’s a lesson the duo learned primarily through trial and error. Starting as a storefront Vermont ice cream parlor on an investment of $12,000, the company eventually began distributing its product throughout the United States. As the profits grew, Greenfield and Cohen had a crisis of conscience.
“We grew up in the ’60s, and to us, business had all these negative connotations that we didn’t want to be a part of,” Greenfield said. “We felt that our company was becoming just another cog in the economic machine, and decided to get out.”
Instead, a friend persuaded them to use Ben & Jerry’s as a business model that was supportive of society. They raised capital by holding an in-state public stock offering, selling shares to one out of every 100 families in Vermont. “As the business prospered, the community — as owners — also prospered,” Greenfield said.
When the company held a national public offering several years later, the partners established the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, donating 7.5 percent of pretax profits to non-profit organizations. “If we wanted to benefit the community as much as possible, we felt that we should give away as much money as possible,” Greenfield said.
The business world took notice, and in 1988 the Council on Economic Priorities awarded Ben & Jerry’s the Corporate Giving Award. That same year, the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized Greenfield and Cohen as Small Business Persons of the Year in a White House ceremony with President Ronald Reagan.
Ben & Jerry’s was acquired in 2000 for $326 million by Unilever, making both Greenfield and Cohen multimillionaires. But even the terms of the sale were unconventional. The company retained an independent board that allowed it to operate separately from Unilever and pursue its social agenda.
Greenfield is optimistic that Ben & Jerry’s will continue to serve as a model for other companies, and he maintains that values are just as important as profits. As the most powerful force in society today, he said, business has a responsibility to its citizens — both as employees and as consumers.
“There is a spiritual aspect to business, just as there is to the lives of individuals,” Greenfield said. “As you give, you receive. As you help others, you are helped in return. Just because the idea that the good you do is written in the Bible and not in a business textbook doesn’t make it any less valid.”
— Eric Nelson