Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream spoke at Ferguson Auditorium at Texas A&M University-Commerce on November 12 as part of the William L. Mayo Prestigious Speaker Series.
Ben and Jerry shared with students the story of how their iconic company began. They were born in Brooklyn, NY four days apart from each other. They met in junior high school in Merrick, Long Island and remained close friends through their graduation at Calhoun High School. In 1977, they reunited and started a food business together.
“We were essentially failing at everything we tried to do,” said Jerry. “We thought ‘Why don’t we get together, be our own bosses and do something that’s fun?’ Since we always liked to eat quite a bit, we thought we would do something with food. We just picked ice cream; we didn’t know anything about it. We learned about ice cream from a five dollar correspondence course from Penn State University. We were really broke at the time, so we split the course for $2.50 a piece. After we made 100s on all our open-book take home tests, we figured we were ready. We just needed to find a place to open up.”
They moved to Burlington, Vermont on a whim, after plans to open an ice cream shop in a warm location fell through. They renovated an old gas station with cheap, green lumber and the first Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor was born. They started with $8,000 of their personal money and a $4,000 loan. In May 1978, they opened with Jerry making the ice cream, and Ben scooping it for customers. They bought all used equipment. The ice cream maker they bought was an old, 5-gallon ice and rock salt ice cream machine, which is like a home ice cream maker with a motor. Jerry said on a good day, they could make around ten batches, or 50 gallons of ice cream.
As the company expanded, Ben’s jobs included scooper and taste-tester, truck driver, marketing director, sales person and president. Jerry began by making all the ice cream, and as the company began expanding into new markets, he began handling everything from distribution to orientation to employee motivation.
They became known throughout Vermont for their rich, unusual flavors and community-oriented approach to business. Ben and Jerry have been recognized for fostering their company’s commitment to social responsibility, by the Council on Economic Priorities which awarded them the Corporate Giving Award in 1988 for donating 7.5% of their pre-tax profit to non-profit organizations through the Ben & Jerry Foundation.
As the need for company funding grew, Ben and Jerry decided that they would rather have community owners than deep-pocketed private investors. Their commitment to serving their community led them to change how they did business. The bottom line of Ben and Jerry’s now measures success in two-parts: how much money is left over at the end of the month, and how much have we helped to improve the quality of life in their community. The employees loved the idea, but their financial advisors were completely against it in the beginning.
“All truth goes through three stages,” said Ben. “First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. We are somewhere along that continuum with regards to the purpose of business in our society.”
One of the reasons Ben & Jerry’s has been such a successful business has been because of the way they do business. In order to benefit both the company and the world, they buy coffee from indigenous farmers in Mexico, blueberries from Native Americans in Maine, Brazil nuts from the rainforest and brownies from a bakery in New York City. They do this to increase profitability for both themselves and the sellers.
The United States Small Business Administration named them United States Small Business Persons of the Year in 1988 in a White House Ceremony hosted by President Reagan. They also received the James Beard Humanitarians of the Year Award in 1993, and the Peace Museum’s Community Peacemakers of the Year Award in 1997. Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever in 2000, and now Ben and Jerry continue to serve as brand ambassadors.
After the speaking event, Ben and Jerry brought ice cream for everyone in the audience. Then, there was an after-party reception for special guests of the university. A&M-Commerce President Dan Jones thanked Ben and Jerry and presented them each with a token of appreciation.
“Ben and Jerry have brought sweetness and light to our university,” said President Jones. “We are thrilled to have you here. Thank you so much for sharing your wit, your wisdom, and your special brand of inspiration with our students, I know they were listening. You have given us hope for the future.”
The William L. Mayo Prestigious Speaker Series brings someone new to campus every semester including spring’s Ryan Lochte, Misty May-Treanor and Linda Cohn. Students are free to these events, and can also apply to be a part of an intimate dinner.
For more information on the William L. Mayo Prestigious Speaker Series, go to www.tamuc.edu/MayoSpeakerSeries.