Thursday, May 24, 2018
Business

Ben & Jerry's co-founder to talk business at USF

His first name — Jerry — is more recognizable than his last and when it's paired with Ben, his partner's name, there is probably not a soul on the planet who doesn't think "ice cream."

But Jerry Greenfield, who along with Ben Cohen founded Ben & Jerry's, is about more than the quirkily named flavors that helped build the Vermont ice cream empire. In fact, he never developed a flavor or was responsible for names like Cherry Garcia or the short-lived Ethan Almond. That was all Cohen, he says.

"I just made the ice cream," Greenfield, 61, says. That and helped bring his and Cohen's socially conscious sensibilities to their very successful business.

A dozen years after Ben & Jerry's was sold to Unilever for about $325 million to cries of "sellout!," Greenfield remains committed to the belief that a successful business can also be socially responsible. Each year, as Ben & Jerry's reviews its fiscal performance, the company also conducts a social audit, which holds equal weight, he says. The company's board looks at the programs for employees while assessing its success as a community partner and environmental innovator.

Greenfield will speak on these topics plus the relevance of entrepreneurship and sustainability in business on Monday at the University of South Florida.

We caught up with Greenfield by phone from his home in Williston, Vt., the day after he testified at the Vermont Legislature in support of a bill that would require labels on genetically engineered foods. He continues to be involved at Ben & Jerry's as a spokesman and "employee," traveling the country speaking on the vision — and ice cream — that made his company famous. Here are excerpts from that interview:

What's the relationship between entrepreneurship and sustainability?

It's mostly about integrating values into business. I think there are people very interested in going into their own business and they are wondering: "Can I bring values into it? Or is it a valueless, stand-for-nothing business?" That's the conventional business thinking. … We found connecting with people on the basis of shared values is more profound than connecting over an ad campaign. (Business people) have this idea that they don't want to alienate any of their potential customers with their beliefs. But remember, you are never going to have 100 percent market share.

What keeps businesses from making social responsibility more prominent?

Stockholder pressure is huge, as is the expectations of quarterly results. It's not only that pressure but it's the way senior managers think. They are forced into short-term thinking, not into what's best for society.

It's difficult for big companies to move easily. There are forces in the world that push them to become more risk averse and that pushes them to do things like everyone else. If you are doing something like everyone else, and fail, well, so what? In a big company, it's more difficult to go out of the box and fail.

Many universities have started entrepreneurship majors. What's the difference between that and a business major?

Entrepreneurship typically involves startups. It involves different skills and really a much different mind-set than the mind-set of business management. Entrepreneurs tend to be risk takers, they tend to be people who like to try new things, don't mind failing, love to learn. They learn from mistakes, they don't get dejected when they make a mistake, they are energized by them. Business managers are looking for things to become manageable. People who are great entrepreneurs are not necessarily good managers. They are visionaries.

What heartens you most about today's young business leaders?

Well, for me, it's heartening that the idea is growing that business can exist to meet social and environmental needs and not just exist to maximize profit. There is a whole movement of social entrepreneurs out there such as TOMS Shoes. (TOMS, founded by Blake Mycoskie, donates a pair of shoes to an impoverished child for every pair sold.)

What disheartens you?

That our happiness comes from (accumulating) more and more and more. In reality, we all know that's not true. One of the things I talk about is measuring success. In business, we measure it through profitability but in reality, the things most important in life are love and friendship.

You and Ben had such a strong vision about Ben & Jerry's but sold it to Unilever in 2000. How do you feel about the state of the company now?

It has been 12 years and there have been ups and downs. Things are particularly good now. We have a great CEO (Jostein Solheim) and there's an independent board that oversees the social effort. The company is transitioning to all fair-trade and GMO-free ingredients. The company is outspoken about marriage equality.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.

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