A friendship that began in seventh grade gym class led to a now-famous business partnership, and a run-down gas station became the pair’s first of many ice cream shops across the country.
In 1978, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield co-founded Ben & Jerry’s Homemade ice cream shop in Burlington, Vt.
Greenfield recounted these sweet memories during the Senior Week 2012 lecture on Thursday, May 10.
It was after his rejections from numerous medical schools and Cohen’s attempts at attending various colleges that the pair pursued a career in business.
“Since we always liked to eat quite a bit, we thought maybe something with food,” Greenfield told a packed Kendall Hall audience. “We picked ice cream and knew nothing about it.”
To adequately educate themselves, the duo split the cost of a correspondence course, where they received a textbook and took tests through the mail. They then set out to find a rural college town, “because college kids eat a lot of ice cream,” Greenfield said.
After researching and scouring the states for a warm college town, Greenfield and Cohen discovered that all the warm college towns already had ice cream shops. Instead, they headed to Vermont.
“We opened it up in May of 1978. It was a beautiful summer,” Greenfield recalled.
As the company began to grow, the two began to get sick of the idea of business.
“We had grown up in the ’60s. To us, business had all these negative connotations and we felt that our business was another cog in the economic machine,” Greenfield said.
After this realization, Ben & Jerry’s decided to become a business that supports the community, in the sense of social causes and environmental issues.
According to Greenfield, spirituality and business are interconnected, in the sense that doing good for others results in greater good.
Greenfield is the president of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which he described as “the charitable arm of the company.” The foundation funds non-profits with grassroots campaigns for social change through a grant application process.
“It’s interesting and ironic, a few years ago Ben & Jerry’s started to get criticized in the media — that we were trying to manipulate our customers into buying our ice cream by doing good deeds,” he explained. “Our response is that our actions are based on deeply-held values.”
These values include helping better the community and giving back.
Though he was alone on stage, he spoke fondly of the other half of the company’s namesake in an interview with The Signal.
“Ben is a genius, very entrepreneurial — loves to try new things,” Greenfield said. “We are a very good balance. I like to know what I’m supposed to do. Ben just hates rules. He’s a real rule breaker.”
After all these years, not only have the two stayed friends, but they’ve also remained fans of ice cream.
“I guess people wonder if Ben and I still eat ice cream, and I eat a ton of ice cream,” he admitted to The Signal. His favorite flavor is AmeriCone Dream, named after Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report,” which is vanilla ice cream with a caramel swirl and fudge-coated pieces of waffle cones.
“My all-time favorite flavor was actually made, but no longer is in existence,” Greenfield said, speaking of Coconut Almond Fudge Chip. This flavor has gone to the Flavor Graveyard — the home for all flavors that don’t sell as well as the others.
During his interview with The Signal, he shared his advice for college students interested in starting their own businesses.
“You should do something you’re really passionate about and not do something just because it seems like a good idea to make money,” Greenfield said. “Whenever you do a business, you run into tough times, and if you’re doing something you really love and it’s aligned with your own personal values that will allow you to work through those difficult times.”