Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., headlined the final event of this spring’s Foreign Affairs Symposium series on Tuesday night at Shriver Hall. He began by discussing Ben and Jerry’s’ beginnings and reminiscing about his first encounter with co-founder Ben Cohen.
“We met in 7th grade,” Greenfield said. “We were in gym class, and we met while running around the track. We were the two slowest and most fat kids.”
Greenfield’s own failure to gain admittance to medical school and Cohen’s distaste for colleges in general led the pair to explore opportunities elsewhere.
“We were essentially failing at everything we were trying to do,” Greenfield said. “So we thought, ‘why don’t we try to get together, have fun and be our own bosses?’ And since we always liked to eat quite a bit, we thought we would do something with food.”
After much deliberation, Greenfield and Cohen chose homemade ice cream as their product and Burlington, Vt. as the location for their first ice cream parlor.
The college town was an ideal place for the two to start their business because they did not have any competition.
However, without substantial job experience, procuring a loan to open up the store proved a difficult task.
“We didn’t have any business experience,” Greenfield said. “We didn’t have any ice cream experience, we didn’t have any assets and we didn’t have any collateral.”
Using a business plan adopted from a small pizzeria in New York, Ben and Jerry’s received a $4,000 loan and found a home in an abandoned gas station just off the main street.
Greenfield then discussed the evolution of Ben and Jerry’s. To maintain customers during Vermont’s frigid winters, the company searched for alternate methods of distribution. Thus, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream was soon delivered via Volkswagen and after that via truck, a distribution move that quickly spread the product and business across the Northeast.
Greenfield also addressed the company’s shift from a focus on profitability to a synthesis of profit and good works.
“There are a tremendous number of unmet social needs and not nearly enough money to go around. We began to wonder, ‘What could we do? What could our business do?’ We started by thinking about the definition of business,” he said.
“[Business] is a combination of organized human energy plus money, which equals power.” Greenfield said. “In fact, it’s become clear that business is really the most powerful force in our society.”
Utilizing the power and influence of their company, Ben and Jerry’s sought to address social concerns largely ignored by most businesses.
“If business is such a powerful force and the people running businesses are good, caring people, then why are businesses not doing more to address the growing social and environmental problems in our society?” Greenfield said. “The reason, we came to understand, is that you only get what you measure and in business what we measure is profitability.”
Greenfield stressed how Ben and Jerry’s sought to utilize the power of business by measuring success not just by profit but also by how the company is able to improve quality of life for its employees and customers.
Internalizing this new method of measuring success, Greenfield and Cohen sought out ways to integrate social and environmental concerns into the company’s everyday activities.
A prime example of this integration is Ben and Jerry’s partnership with Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York. Ben and Jerry’s purchases brownies used in recipes such as Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Half Baked from this bakery and thus sustains local businesses.
Similar integration efforts can be seen in the company’s PartnerShops, which are non-profit organizations that provide job training and experience for those who face employment barriers.
“What we have been learning at Ben and Jerry’s is that 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 that you do comes back to you is written in the Bible and not in some business textbook does not mean that it’s any less valid. As we help others we can be helped in return.”
Following the talk, music was played and ice cream bars were served outside of Shriver Hall on Wyman Quad.
“Nobody gets ice cream unless they’re gonna boogie,” Greenfield said.