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Ben Cohen

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Bennet Cohen, better known as Ben, is half of iconic ice cream duo Ben & Jerry’s. Cohen was born March 19, 1951 to mother Frances and father Irving, an accountant. He grew up in Merrick, Long Island, only two miles from friend and co-founder Jerry Greenfield. In fact, the two were born in the same hospital, only four days apart, but didn’t meet until middle school. The two slowest runners in their seventh grade gym class, they bonded instantly, forming a lifelong friendship that would produce both internationally beloved ice cream and an early model for socially conscious business.

In 1969, after spending his senior year of high school working as an ice cream man, Cohen started classes at Colgate University. He dropped out after the second semester of his sophomore year and headed to Ohio to visit Greenfield. After a month living in his friend’s room and selling sandwiches in the dormitories at night, he went back to New York and enrolled in Skidmore College’s “University Without Walls” program. He remained in the program from 1971 until 1974, taking courses in jewelry making and pottery in pursuit of his dream of becoming a potter. His endeavors into higher education would also include courses at the New School and NYU. During that time, he worked a series of jobs, including delivering pottery wheels and working as a McDonald’s cashier, a Pinkerton guard, a mop-boy at Jamesway and Friendly’s, an assistant superintendent, an ER clerk, and a taxi driver. He eventually took a position as a craft teacher at the Highland Community School, a private school for emotionally disturbed adolescents. During his three years there, he did his first ice cream-making experiments.

In 1977, Cohen and Greenfield decided to carve out a new path for themselves, going into business together. While they considered starting a bagel business, they found the necessary equipment to be cost-prohibitive, so they shifted their energies towards ice cream making. Splitting the cost of a $5 correspondence course from Pennsylvania State University’s Creamery, they started developing their ice cream-making abilities, as well as crafting their own unique formula for the creamy confection. Thanks to Cohen’s anosmia, a condition which results in loss of smell and near loss of taste, he had a well-developed sense for the “mouth feel” of food. He insisted on adding bigger and bigger chunks to their ice cream to meet his desire for texture in treats. The result was Ben & Jerry’s unique, signature style.

On May 5, 1978, with a $12,000 investment, $4000 of which they borrowed, the friends opened an ice cream parlor. Though they had planned to open in Saratoga Springs, New York, where they were living at the time, someone beat them to the punch, so the co-founders sought out a college town with an open market. Renovating a gas station, they set up in downtown Burlington, VT.

Unfortunately, neither Cohen nor Greenfield had any experience in business. Though the ice cream was popular, they were struggling financially. After closing the store one day to try and sort out the situation, putting up a sign reading: "We're closed because we're trying to figure out what's going on," they decided to bring in help. They hired their first COO, local nightclub owner Fred “Chico” Lager, and their financial situation quickly improved.

In 1979, one year after opening, Ben & Jerry’s celebrated their anniversary with a Free Cone Day, an event that would become an annual tradition for the company. They started packaging their first pints in 1980, renting space in an old spool and bobbin mill on Burlington’s South Champlain Street and distributing them to local retailers out of Cohen’s Volkswagen. As their ice cream’s popularity quickly grew, the first franchises popped up, beginning with a branch in Shelburne, VT in 1981 and spreading into neighboring states within five years.

With demand growing, the co-founders went about seeking financing, albeit in their typically unconventional way. Uncovering an almost unheard of clause about stocks and brokering, they raised the investment needed for a new manufacturing plant with a Vermont-only public stock offering. That year, their gross receipts increased 120% from the previous year, with the humble ice cream establishment amassing sales of more than $4 million. By 1985, sales had grown even more, reaching figures of more than $9 million.

Suddenly the little ice cream start-up was starting to look like a player in the market. Haagen-Dazs reacted, trying to limit distribution of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Boston. The co-founders filed suit against Haagen-Dazs’ parent company, Pillsbury, and launched its famous “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” campaign. They would file a second lawsuit against the company two years later, when they again attempted to enforce exclusive distribution.

Ben & Jerry’s was flourishing, growing at a rate that Cohen and Greenfield soon began to find overwhelming. They were finding it necessary to hire more senior-level employees, who often came from a more traditional business mindset than that of the company’s founders. When Cohen and Greenfields’ philosophy of socially conscious business began to clash with the new executives’ modus operandi, the co-founders started to feel the integrity of their business slipping away. They brought in an outside consultant, who recommended temporarily slowing the growth until cultural issues could be reconciled. With new policies in order, the company continued to thrive, reaching $132 million in sales by the end of 1992.

In June 1994, the same year Ben & Jerry’s went international, selling pints in the U.K., Cohen announced he would be stepping down as CEO. Holding an essay contest as part of the search, they hired Robert Holland, Jr. to step in to the position. Twenty months later, Holland left the company, and Perry Odak stepped in in 1997.

Ben & Jerry’s has always been a socially conscious business, perhaps in large part because its founders had no background in conventional business. In fact, they didn’t want to be businessmen at all. When the company began to grow and they found they were no longer ice cream-makers but business executives, both pondered leaving the company entirely. While Greenfield went temporarily into “retirement,” Cohen decided to instead structure Ben & Jerry’s into a new kind of business, one he could be proud to stand behind. After a couple years of pointedly using a portion of their profits to give back to the Vermont community, the co-founders founded the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation to try and achieve these ends in a more deliberate, organized way. With 7.5% of the company’s pre-tax profits going to the foundation, it’s been able to offer support to nonprofit charities nationwide, including the Anti Displacement Project, National Grassroots Grant Program and the Vermont Capacity Building Grant Program.

Cohen also looked to structuring the company to be conscious from the inside. Believing that the company’s workers were central to its success, he started seeking ways to better support his employees, offering profit-sharing programs, free health club memberships, day-care service and college tuition aid. He encouraged an open exchange of ideas and opinions and instituted a practice of having employees evaluate their superiors. He also established a revolutionary worker-focused pay scale policy ensuring that the highest-paid employee would earn no more than five time the salary of an entry-level worker.

In 2000, Ben & Jerry’s was purchased by Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever for $325 million. The acquisition agreement was unique in that it established an independent Board of Directors focused on preserving the socially conscious nature of the business and continuing the company’s social mission, brand integrity and product quality. The company has continued to be socially active under the new ownership. Social initiatives have included partnering with Rock the Vote to register of 11,000 voters on Free Cone Day 2004, protesting the proposed opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling with a 900 pound Baked Alaska on Earth Day 2005, and launching April Fools spoof “CyClone Dairy” website to campaign for a tracking system of cloned-animal products in 2009. The Board of Directors also issued a statement of solidarity with Occupy protestors in fall 2011, and scooped ice cream for Occupiers in Zucotti Park several times during the protests.

Cohen, who is now involved with Ben & Jerry’s only as a member of the advisory board, has turned his energies towards continued social activism. He is a vocal supporter of Democratic candidates, including Dennis Kucinich in 2004 and John Edwards and then Barack Obama in 2008. He oversaw both TrueMajority and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, and has served on the boards of Oxfam America, Greenpeace, and Hampshire College. He currently serves as “Head Stamper” for Stamp Stampede, which he helped launch in 2012. The organization, created to support passing a constitutional amendment helping to overturn the Citizens’ United decision, stamps messages about reducing the influence of private corporations on politics on US Currency.

In 1988, Cohen and Greenfield were named US Small Business Person of the Year by President Ronald Reagan. Amongst numerous other accolades, Cohen was honored by the New York Open Center in 2000 for his “leadership in pioneering socially responsible business.”

Companies and Investments

Ben & Jerry’s (Co-founder, CEO, Advisory Board), Stamp Stampede (Head Stamper), TrueMajority (Founder), Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities (Founder), Oxfam America (Board Member), Greenpeace (Board Member), Hampshire College (Board Member)

Lessons Learned

The norm is that businesses say that it is not possible for them to help to alleviate social problems. It's not possible for them to integrate social concerns into how they do business so that they can profit at the same time. We found that that's just not true.

We found that it is possible to do that, and we found lots of different ways to integrate meeting social needs into our day-to-day business operations.

It's about a lot more than just giving away some money. It's about sourcing our ingredients in such a way that we help to address social problems.

One example is that our flavour chocolate fudge brownie utilises brownies that are made by a non-profit bakery owned by a religious institution in an inner city area whose purpose is to provide job training to formerly unemployable people, ex drug addicts, or ex convicts or formerly homeless people, and so just by buying brownies for that bakery we're helping to solve that social problem.

We innovated a two-part bottom line, so that we measure our benefit to the community, our impact on the community, positive and negative and we measure how much money we make. If we fail at either one of those, we have failed as a mandate. (Ben Cohen on the attainability of a two-part bottom line for socially conscious business, measuring profit as both money made and positive impact on the community, in an interview with Business Guardian)

We were holding community celebrations and giving away a bunch of ice cream but we didn't really develop our philosophy until seven years later and as the business grew we began to feel the business is essentially a machine for making money that we wanted to be of as much service to the community as possible. What we needed to do was give away as much of our profits as possible. We ended up giving away a very high percentage of our profits, 7.5 per cent of pre-tax profits. You know the normal corporate donation is maybe about 1 per cent. We were giving away a lot more and we had become a public company but despite giving away such a high percentage of our profits there were so many unmet needs.

We found that every foundation in the world is in the same situation. There are just so many overwhelming unmet human needs that for a business just giving away money isn't enough and we were wondering was there something else we could do and we figured out that the thing that we could do more was to integrate social concerns into day to day business activities, and so we started doing business with a bank that was based in a decaying urban area whose purpose was to attract deposits from outside the area, use it to rebuild that area.

We started to invest in low income housing, tax credits. We started sourcing our ingredients; now we source them fair traded so that the smaller farmers get paid a higher price. (Ben Cohen on going beyond philanthropic giving by integrating social concerns into the mindset of the business itself, in an interview with the Business Guardian.)

It was controversial within our own company, at the board of directors level. We were criticised by the major business schools around the country. They would invite us to come and speak. We would tell them about it and would tell us, you know, we were stupid.

We just continued to do it and continued to demonstrate that we were very profitable. We spent a lot less money on advertising and public relations. Companies traditionally hire and manage advertising agencies and public relations to essentially make up a nice story about the company so that people feel good about the company and buy their products. Instead, we decided to use our money to actually doing good things for the community and people really got to like us a lot. (Ben Cohen on doing what you believe in and working with integrity despite naysayers, in an interview with the Business Guardian)

If there is any hope for our countries and society in general, it is through business. Business has risen to this level of the most powerful force in society. I mean it used to be that the most powerful forces in society were religion and then nation states and the purpose of those two entities was to support the common good, and maybe they didn't do everything exactly right, but now those two are subservient to business. (Ben Cohen on the power and responsibility of business to positively effect society, in The Guardian)  

Inspiring Quotes

Ben Cohen's Quotes

Business has a responsibility to give back to the community.

Ben Cohen

What we demonstrated was that you can do it. You have two choices when you go into business. You can just run a traditional business that only has a one part bottom line, that is only there to maximise profits for the owners, or you can do one that has a two-part bottom line that makes a bunch of profits and helps to improve the quality of life of the community. We like the second.

Ben Cohen

Were all here in this world for some reason or another. If youre aware of injustice, you can either ignore it, say there is nothing you can do about it, complain about it and not do anything, or put your energies into doing something about it. And for me, the only thing that is a meaningful use of my life is to work to improve the quality of life for people who are disadvantaged. I dont believe that just because one person is born on one side of some imaginary line and another person is born on the other side means that a lot of people should be getting screwed through no fault of their own.

Ben Cohen

It’s just a spiritual law. It’s the way the world works. It’s written in the Bible. As you give you receive. As you help others, others help you. As your business supports the community, the community supports your business. It’s just the same. I actually think it’s true for nations as well.

Ben Cohen

What we found at Ben & Jerrys is that theres a spiritual aspect to business just as there is to the lives of individuals. When you give you receive. As you help others, youre helped in return. As your business supports the community, the community supports your business.

Ben Cohen

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