jerry greenfield
Jerry Greenfield at
Jerry Greenfield at Enactus World Cup (Image: provided)

Vv Magazine’s Ama Scriver sat down with Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s to discuss his humble beginnings, the company’s activism stances, ice cream & more. 

If you’re like me, then you probably know Ben & Jerry’s best for their delicious ice cream flavor combinations. However more recently, Ben & Jerry’s and Jerry himself, have been progressive business leaders in their activism stances including climate change and more recently, systemic and institutionalized racism. Who knew that a little ice cream company could achieve so much greatness!

Most recently, Jerry Greenfield was in Toronto participating in the Top 2 Future Top Forum: Climate Change as part of Enactus World Cup. As part of the World Cup, 3,500 student, business and academic leaders from around the globe will gather to discuss how entrepreneurship can fuel social change.  When I had the opportunity to chat with Greenfield, he told me a bit about his beliefs, using his voice for change and what activism really means.

So I wanted to start off by saying it’s so great to chat with you! I wanted to start with a bit of an easier question since I know everyone wants to know. How did you and Ben get started in the ice cream business?

Jerry Greenfield: Ben and I grew up in the same town together and met in seventh grade during gym class. We were the two slowest, fattest kids in the class together. I went to college and never got into medical school, whereas Ben dropped out of three or four colleges. We were essentially failing at everything we tried to do, so in 1978 we decided to open up a home-made ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont with a small investment. We learned how to make ice cream through a correspondence course and never expected it to be anything more than the little ice cream that we created.

Do you ever miss any of the early days and getting to be so hands-on with the business?

JG: Yes, it’s very different as you might imagine. You know, I do miss it. I miss it because, and this may sound funny, but the early days were so chaotic. You never knew what was going to happen, every single day was a total adventure. Ben and I had pretty much no idea what we were doing. We were in the shop every day making ice cream and scooping it over the counter to our customers and it was a blast! I miss the excitement about it and I really miss the customer interactions. The act of scooping ice cream and then handing it to the person to eat it. It’s funny because I was just upstairs (at the Enactus World Cup) scooping ice cream for some of the guests here. So in a way, it felt as if I had gone back to the original days.

I think one of the things people love and identify with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is the hippy persona – why do you think that?

JG: I think it’s gained a hippy persona because Ben and I are former hippies. I think when people talk about hippies, they might have different connotations for it. Hippy has a very positive connotation and at least in the way that I was thinking of it, are people who have thought about bringing more peace and love into the world. We’re all in this together, so that’s the way I think about it and I think over the years, Ben & Jerry’s (the brand) has tried to integrate those values into its business. Creating a more peaceful and just world and doing it in a way that is joyful around ice cream.

I love that stance! So as you mentioned earlier, you’re in Toronto today for the Enactus World Cup. Why are topics like global warming and climate change important to someone like you but also important to Ben & Jerry’s as a company?

JG: I think it’s important because business plays a huge role in how our communities and how our society as a whole are shaped. I think businesses have incredible power and incredible impact and at Ben & Jerry’s we believe that business needs to use its power and influence to be a positive and constructive force for good. Often business is seen as an entity that only truly cares about itself, trying to make money and whatnot. But Ben and I are trying to think more about the impact we have on the larger world. We’ve always felt like our business is a neighbor and it has the same responsibility as any neighbor. I think what’s been really interesting is that in business, it’s not positive to take that stance. That if you’re seen as caring, it takes away from your businesses’ ability to make money and our experience has been exactly the opposite. The more caring and giving Ben & Jerry’s has been, the more successful we’ve become.

Reflecting back on your work in the 1960s to now – how would you say activism has changed?

JG:  I think one thing that has really changed is the introduction of the Internet, computers, and social media which obviously didn’t exist in the 1960s. I think people’s ability to organize and to communicate through non-traditional means is off the charts. It’s really potentially democratized how important activism can be. For example, Ben & Jerry’s can now communicate with millions of people through our Facebook page or Twitter feed. It can produce content around social issues and activism that never would have been possible 15 or 20 years ago.

Do you think any of your franchise owners hold the same beliefs you do regarding activism and climate change? For example, do you think they should carry the same beliefs?

JG: You know, that’s really interesting! In the United States, we have 250 franchised scoop shops and they are individually owned by people in their communities. I think there’s a real range of the views of those owners. I would like to think, in general, they skew towards caring about the same issues that Ben & Jerry’s does as a corporate entity. I think that we support them, in the best way possible, on what the company initiatives are. I think people are often drawn to becoming shop owners with us because they are familiar with the Ben & Jerry’s brand, what we stand for and what values are fundamental to business and built it. Having said that, not everyone does, it is hard to generalize.

Final question and hopefully this one is easy: what is your favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream?

JG:  All throughout our years, I have never created a flavor myself, that would always be Ben.  But I certainly love trying them and I would have to say, the flavors that are associated with campaigns are usually some of my favorites. For example, last year we released ‘Save Our Swirled’ featuring raspberry ice cream, marshmallow and raspberry swirls, plus dark and white fudge ice cream cones which was tied to raising awareness for climate change. There is a flavor this year released in the United States called Empowerment (peppermint ice cream with fudge brownies & fudge swirls) which focuses on a campaign that Ben & Jerry’s has created to overcome voter suppression and bring forth more active discussion of voter rights in America. It’s a huge issue in the United States, there is a concerted action to prevent certain groups of people from voting, particularly people of color, low-income people and students. So the company is engaged in bringing more awareness to them.  So those are the flavors I tend to gravitate to because they have more of a message behind them.

RELATED LINK: The Ben & Jerry’s Flavours We Wish We Had in Canada 

What do you think of Ben & Jerry using their ice cream to spark change in the world? Share your thoughts in the comment section below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.