Jerry relishes helping ‘neighbors’

Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s fame, speaks about corporate responsibility at the Center for Business and the Environment on Wednesday.
Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s fame, speaks about corporate responsibility at the Center for Business and the Environment on Wednesday. Photo by Erica Blonde.

When an overweight 13-year-old named Jerry Greenfield found himself lagging behind the rest of the gym class, right beside him was another hefty classmate named Ben Cohen. The gym teacher told the two they would have to run a seven-minute mile before they could stop.

“Ben yelled back that if he couldn’t run it the first time, he sure wasn’t going to be able to run it the second time,” Greenfield said. “That’s when I knew that I wanted to be his friend.”

It was a friendship that eventually blossomed into a business partnership when Ben and Jerry decided to found their now-iconic ice cream company. Wednesday afternoon at the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, Greenfield spoke to about 150 undergraduates, graduate students, professors and members of the general public about his company and its aims to prioritize corporate responsibility over profit.

Greenfield began by describing his business-style as “very informal and casual,” and the talk — cosponsored by the School of Management and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies — proceeded just that way.

After Goldfield’s inauspicious introduction to partner and lifelong friend Cohen, the two separated for college but never lost touch. They spent a few years working menial jobs, such as driving cabs, but eventually decided to try to start their ice cream business.

After opening the first Ben & Jerry’s store in Burlington, Vt., the pair saw little demand for their chilly product amid the cold winters, so Cohen went around Vermont selling ice cream in pints, Greenfield recounted. This later led to the distribution of the ice cream in supermarkets and eventually the company’s takeover by Unilever, a decision Greenfield said he did not want to make.

“We are no longer independent. We didn’t want it to happen, but we’re a public company, and Unilever offered so much money,” he said. “It was the best decision for the shareholders.”

Greenfield said he and Cohen now play less of a role than in the early days of driving their product around the state.

“We have zero responsibility and zero authority,” he said. “We’re in the twilight zone of employees.”

Despite his self-proclaimed insignificant role in the corporate side of the company, when it comes to community, Greenfield said he stays true to his values. The partners created a system to sell affordable company stocks to “neighbors” in Vermont. This way, as Greenfield explained it, as the business grew and gained wealth, so would the state. At one point, he said, one in every 100 Vermont families held stock in the company.

Greenfield also explained how 14 of their 300 franchises are partner shops that are run by nonprofit organizations. In these stores, all of the earnings go directly to the organizations that own them.

“We’ve been conditioned to think that making profits and doing good are separate fields,” he said. “But if you try to combine them, it is possible. We measure success by how we’re helping the communities we have stores in.”

The audience ate up the talk, constantly laughing at Greenfield’s anecdotes. Two audience members interviewed said they found the talk “hilarious.”

“[The] presentation was inspirational,” said Marian Chertow, professor at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “He told a story about two guys who didn’t know what they wanted to do, had some trouble and then became one of the most beloved brands in America. Now that’s a story.”

Everyone was pleased with the supply of Ben &Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream served at the center before, after and even during the presentation.

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