By Roxanne Fequiere
Back in 1978, when childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield joined forces to open an ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont, neither of them knew that they’d have a hand in changing corporate culture the world over. In the decades since, Ben and Jerry have created a blockbuster brand that marries product with purpose to this day — despite the fact that both founders stepped away from the day-to-day dealings of the company more than twenty years ago.
Chief welcomed the two trailblazing entrepreneurs for a conversation with Comic Relief US CEO and Chief Member Alison Moore about their uncharted path to success, how their legacy lives on, and what a Chief-inspired ice cream flavor would look like.
Not Being Political Is Not an Option
While businesses often shy away from publicly wading into political issues, Ben points out that keeping quiet does not exempt them from having a stance. "Businesses are hugely political and have been hugely political probably since business started,” he said. “They are constantly making political choices. They are influencing Congress to pass laws or not pass laws to essentially allow businesses to pollute the environment. They do all that covertly.”
For Ben and his partner, Jerry, their turning point came after their initial wave of success during the ‘80s. “Business had grown to a particular level, we were doing a few million dollars a year, and we felt like we were just becoming another cog in the economic machine to exploit communities and employees and the environment.” Disillusioned, they put the business up for sale — until a colleague posed a question that changed their approach: "If there’s something you don't like about business, why don't you just change it?”
It’s About More Than Just Money
“One of the great qualities of my dear partner Ben is he is not put off when he doesn't know how to do something,” Jerry explained. “His idea is, well, you just come up with some ideas, you try it. Sometimes they work, usually they don't work, and then you make improvements and you try again.” Once the co-founders decided to add a social good component to the business, they realized that they weren’t quite sure how to proceed. “We established the social mission, but we had no idea how to do it,” Jerry said.
They began by establishing a charitable foundation to give away money, but eventually figured out that the work needed to go deeper than that. “We soon learned that we could never give away enough money — even though it was really important — and that the real power of the business was in how we conducted our normal day-to-day operations, how we sourced ingredients,” Jerry said. “That was the journey, and I guess, still is the journey, in many respects, to figure out how to integrate social and environmental concerns into the normal business activities.”
Commit to the Cause (and Its Consequences)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Ben and Jerry decided to incorporate purpose into their business plan, a number of stakeholders foretold doom — which never came to pass. “Even people who did not agree with the company respected that the business was taking a position on an issue that was in the common good and not for its own financial self-interest,” Jerry recalls. Even more importantly: “We ended up forming a very deep bond with our consumers based on shared values. And when you can form that kind of relationship with your customer, you’ve got a customer for life.”
Since selling the company to Unilever in 2000, Ben and Jerry have remained close to the company in a new capacity. As Ben puts it: “We have no responsibility and no authority, our titles are Co-Founders.” Still, the foundations they put down decades before remain rooted and continue to flourish. “Ben and I are both pretty shocked at some of the stands the company continues to take today without any influence or pushing from us,” Jerry said. "It's totally amazing. The company keeps on taking stronger and stronger stands — and it keeps on making more and more money."
And About That Chief Ice Cream Flavor…
"I’ve given this some thought," Ben said of what ice cream flavor he’d whip up to represent Chief. The result: Ms. Chief Chunk — get it? "Since it's all about the C-suite, there would be lots of chocolate C’s in the ice cream, some dark chocolate, some milk chocolate, and some white chocolate."