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Cream of Consciousness

Originally published in the Intelligencer | October 15, 2010

By: Crissa Shoemaker Debree

Ben and Jerry’s has been working its socially and environmentally responsible business model for three decades.

Ben Cohen was a college dropout flitting between odd jobs. Jerry Greenfield had tried – and repeatedly failed – to get into medical school.

The two childhood friends were failing at pretty much everything they tried to do. So they decided to open an ice cream shop. They chose the college town of Burlington, Vt., because it didn’t have any other scoop shops.

More than 30 years later, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is one of the best-known names in ice cream – not only for its strangely named flavors like Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey, but also for its socially and environmentally responsible business practices.

Greenfield spoke to students and community members Thursday night at Hatboro-Horsham High School about the company’s beginnings and its double bottom line of profits and community involvement.

“We decided to redefine the bottom line,” Greenfield said. “We’d measure success not just on the amount of money we made, but also on how we improved the quality of life in the communities we operate.”

Greenfield and Cohen opened their first ice cream shop in an old gas station in 1978. They kept the business going through Vermont’s cold winters by convincing small grocery stores to carry their flavors.

By 1980, the pair were distributing their products throughout New England. But that almost came to an end when ice cream giant Haagen-Dazs and its parent corporation, Pillsbury, threatened to pull its products from trucks that also carried Ben & Jerry’s.

Cohen and Greenfield went on the offensive, launching the grassroots marketing campaign asking “What’s the dough boy afraid of?” Thousands of customers called a 1-800 number Ben & Jerry’s set up, and Haagen-Dazs eventually backed off from its threat.

It was around that time that Greenfield and Cohen – “two hippies,” Greenfield said – realized they had become businessmen instead of ice cream makers.

“It wasn’t our idea of a good time,” Greenfield said. “We felt our business was becoming another economic cog in the machine.”

Instead of walking away, the two decided to change the way they did business. Realizing the power businesses have to affect change, the two promised to invest locally – the company’s first stock offering was open only to Vermont residents – and support causes close to customers’ hearts.

Sales of chocolate fudge brownie, for instance, support a New York bakery, which helps the needy in its community. Some scoop shops are owned by nonprofit organizations that keep proceeds for their causes.

Despite being sold to food giant Unilever in 2000, Ben & Jerry’s maintains its commitment to social responsibility, Greenfield said. He and Cohen still work for the company, but are no longer in charge of day-to-day operations.

Greenfield’s speech was a prelude to the high school’s second annual Futures Fair, a career education event in February focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship. The fair is joint presentation of the Hatboro-Horsham Education Foundation, the school district and the Greater Horsham Chamber of Commerce.

“They’re creative and ingenious,” Career Education and Work Curriculum Coordinator Susan Fox said of the ice cream magnates. “They were the first people to be socially conscious on a massive scale. That was 30 years ago.”

Fox said Greenfield’s talk as well as bimonthly presentations by other entrepreneurs are meant to help students choose future career paths and encourage them to return to jobs in the Delaware Valley after they graduate college.

“We take career development seriously,” Fox said. “Kids who enter college with a major – even if they change – are more likely to graduate. We want to give them the tools to learn about themselves and the world around them.”