From the beginning, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield wanted their company to be about more than just ice cream; they knew they could leverage their popularity to advance progressive causes. Host Ashley C. Ford talks to them about their decades-long friendship, how they found early success combining ice cream with social values, and what they’re working on today.
Read Episode 9 Full Transcript Below
ASHLEY [VO]: Hi, I’m Ashley C. Ford. And this is Into The Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s podcast about joy and justice produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.
ASHLEY: We are going to start from what is possibly the simplest place, where I am simply going to ask you to say your names and what you’re most known for.
BEN: Ben Cohen. Ice Cream.
ASHLEY: And Jerry?
JERRY: I am Jerry Greenfield. And I am best known because my name comes second after Ben’s. [ASHLEY: laughs]
ASHLEY [VO]: We have a special treat for you today. I’m sitting down with the founders of Ben & Jerry’s themselves, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. We’re going to cover a lot of ground today, including how they opened their first ice cream shop in Burlington, Vermont, and how, over time, they started to infuse the company with their values.
But before we get into that, this story begins in Long Island in 1963.
ASHLEY: So the two of you have been best friends since middle school. So I’ll ask Ben first. What was Jerry like as a kid?
BEN: I mean, we met when we were in gym class together, uh, running around the track. We were the two slowest, fattest kids in the class. And, um, so we were at the back of the pack, uh, I mean, we were not with the pack. Uh, we were, we were behind, um, and he was a great guy to be with back there, uh.
ASHLEY: Jerry. What was Ben like in middle school?
JERRY: Ben, has always been a free thinker. And you know, that was a revelation to me because I was, you know, a complete rule follower. Uh, and you know, Ben had done things in all these different ways and didn’t always follow all the rules. And I just thought that was an amazing quality for someone to have. I didn’t know, those people existed.
MUX START [“ES_Too Much Charm” licensed through Epidemic Sound]
ASHLEY [VO]: After meeting on that fateful day in gym class, the two became fast friends. Part of that might be because of their respective upbringings: Jerry, the rule-follower, dreamt of becoming a doctor someday. And Ben, the free-thinker, went to art camp in the summer and liked making pottery. Both describe themselves, and each other, as having ‘humanistic values’, which is not surprising since they both came of age during a period of civil rights and social change.
MUX (fun, optimistic, hippie music) [“ES_Too Much Charm” licensed through Epidemic Sound]
ASHLEY: I know you’re both children of the sixties and seventies, right. Which is such an integral time in our history to our thoughts around some of those humanistic approaches to society and to culture and to life. The idea that love should rule, um, and that we should let love rule all of those things.
How did this inform your own identities as it relates to activism? Because I got to tell you when I tell people that I’m working on a podcast for Ben & Jerry’s the first thing they say is like, oh man, I like those guys’ politics!
JERRY: I’m surprised that most people say, I like those guys, politics. Most people say, I love the ice cream. Or, uh, they stopped making my favorite flavor and what’s wrong with those guys? Uh that’s, that’s the starting point for most people.
ASHLEY [VO]: I mean, to be fair, they’re definitely known for their unique flavors with catchy names too, like ‘Mission to Marzipan’ and ‘Vermonty Python’.
JERRY: You know, I think, I think growing up in the sixties, you know, we’re sort of the Woodstock generation.
And, uh, you know, people sometimes ask us if we were hippies and, and things along those lines, and somehow it’s got this negative connotation, but for us, those values were very positive. And I think what Ben always tells them is that, um, You know, hippies are people who believe in peace and love.
BEN: I want to answer the question that you asked Jerry, and I want to answer it with, uh, a quote from Cornel West, which is: justice is what love looks like in public. And [ASHLEY: Mmm] for me, that is, that says it all. Uh, I think that’s what motivates Jerry and myself. That’s what motivates many activists is love. And it’s love that makes us want to. Make this a more just world, uh, for those that are oppressed or screwed by the status quo.
ASHLEY [VO]: After high school, the two remained close friends, living together in New York City for a time. Jerry went to school for pre-med, and Ben hopped from one pursuit to another. But med school didn’t pan out for Jerry, and neither of them could find success on their own. So they decided to take a risk and go into business together. They paid $5 and took a correspondence course on ice cream-making, which, back in the day, was kind of like taking an online class via snail mail.
JERRY: So this was back in 1978. The original shop we opened was in an abandoned gas station. I would say people would describe it as funky. We were making ice cream in a rock, salt and ice ice cream machine, which is like a home ice cream maker. We had a player-piano and, uh, and so it was a very down-home sorta place.
Uh, it was mostly for fun. Uh, I certainly did not have any grand ambitions for, uh, I mean, for what the business or our little business could be. Uh, I think we were just trying to figure it out as we went along. But, uh, you know, I think as, as Ben often alludes to, uh, we wanted to treat people the way we wanted to be treated. We certainly did not have a boss mentality. Uh, I can’t remember how many jobs Ben has been fired from. Uh, he, he definitely did not have a boss mentality. Uh, so you know, that, that was sort of where we were coming from and we want it to be part of a community, not separate from a community.
And I think actually integrating values into the company came a few years later, uh, when. When we started to realize that we were indeed a business, we weren’t just a little shop and that we did have a voice and we could use our voice, our ice cream itself, uh, for, for positive change and things we believed in.
ASHLEY [VO]: It didn’t take long for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to take off. What was once a quirky little ice cream shop in an old converted gas station was growing, and growing fast. They started packing their ice cream into pints to sell at grocery stores, and franchised Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shops in other parts of Vermont. And by 1983, they made history by donating 27 thousand pounds of Ben & Jerry’s to make the world’s biggest ice cream sundae.
They were a bona fide success in just a few short years; but success didn’t mean much if it wasn’t serving their shared higher purpose. And the more their company grew, the more important it became to them to use the momentum of their success to enact change, however they could.
ASHLEY: Ben, what does it mean for a company to be values-led? Like what other models did you two have to work from as you built this company?
BEN: there was very little, uh, in terms of uh, models. I mean, I kept on going to uh, bookstores, going to the business book section, looking for books on how to infuse social values or activism into your business. And there weren’t any.
ASHLEY [VO]: Then one day a friend invited them to attend the first meeting of what would become the Social Venture Network. It’s a group of people who started or wanted to start companies led by their social values, and not just the bottom line.
For example, there was the body shop in England that used its shop windows to campaign on social issues. And the shoe company that intentionally opened factories in low-income neighborhoods that could use job opportunities. These people were all thinking about their values from day one. And for Ben and Jerry, they saw an opportunity to use their product, their ice cream, as a way to make difficult conversations more palatable.
They started small. They backed grassroots efforts, led by small farms, to stop use of bovine growth hormone in dairy production. Then they joined a campaign led by the Children’s Defense fund, and later partnered with Rock the Vote by donating thousands of free scoops of ice cream to entice first-time voters to register. That’s just to name a few! And although they’ve gotten behind lots of different causes over the years, the common thread that connects these efforts is their desire to empower the underdog.
BEN: That’s really the key to it. In order to have a business that ends up with values in the right place. It needs to start out with values at the very beginning.
And once you have that as a core purpose of the business, then. Anytime you make decisions about what are we gonna, you know, what flavors are we going to come up with or what’s our growth plan for next year or the next five years? You’re, you’re forced to factor in, how can we do that in a way that advances our progressive social values?
It needs to be said that this is not about charity. It’s not about philanthropy. It’s not about making a bunch of money and then giving a small percentage of it away. It’s about factoring in social concerns with your day to day business activities. That way you know, you can’t really pull them out because they’re, they’re integrated.
ASHLEY: How, how did that even become the idea? How did it ever become an idea that like, not only are we going to use our voices, use our resources, use our privilege to be on the side of progress, but also we’re going to use the ice cream. We’re going to have flavors that have certain, you know, branding that matches not just our values, but then, like, also the values of the artists we want to support, the values of the causes we want to support. How did that become part of the plan?
BEN: You know, I guess, uh, as the company started to get larger, Jerry and I started to get invited to speak at, uh, various colleges or. Or business associations and they wanted us to come and talk about marketing. And how do, how do you do your marketing? I remember very clearly thinking that I don’t want to tell these guys how to do marketing. I want to tell them about social values. Uh, if they didn’t have the social values, I didn’t want to tell them how to go market their stuff.
So we started talking about that and, and we also started realizing. That we had a platform and, uh, that we had a responsibility to, to use that platform for justice. And so, you know, you use whatever you’ve got.
And I remember that in the early days, it was very, very controversial, uh, at Ben and Jerry’s, you know, within upper-level management, within the board of directors, you know, people were saying that, uh, well, if you, if you, take Company time and resources to do something that’s of social benefit. That’s going to take away from time and resources that you can put into increasing profitability and, you know, if you take a stand on, on some issue and a bunch of people don’t agree with you, ice cream sales are going to go down.
And, uh, you know, it was, uh, a battle, until we started actually doing it, just taking these stands on social and political issues and, uh, discovering that sales did not go down that, uh, At least, I would say based on sales, you would say that more people love and appreciate the stands that Ben and Jerry’s takes than are opposed to the stands.
ASHLEY [VO]: Most companies say the way to success is to keep everything light, carefree, inoffensive. Ben & Jerry’s has proven over the years that making social good an essential part of their mission can thrive. Even when it comes to issues that are painful, or perceived as controversial.
After the break we’ll hear what Jerry and Ben are working on today.
MIDROLL AD BREAK
MUX (more hippie goodness) [“ES_Sahara Cowboy” licensed through Epidemic Sound]
ASHLEY [VO]: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield’s relationship was formed on a middle school track, as you heard earlier. You’ll hear them mention this again and again, in other interviews. The story of two kids two found kinship as outsiders.
I think they like to talk about how they met because it still says something about who they are today. The company forges ahead with business decisions that some would deem unpopular, and they get their hands dirty in social justice work, too.
These days, their main focus is police reform. For Ben, his motivation to get involved in this issue started with one act of police violence in particular.
BEN: The murder of Tamir Rice.
ASHLEY [VO]: Tamir Rice was a twelve-year-old child killed by police in Ohio.
BEN: I just started to get more and more outraged that time and time again, you would find out about a policeman. Uh, murdering an unarmed black person and, and each time it happened and it made the news and, you know, and then there were videos of it. Uh, I thought, well, they’ve got to stop now. They couldn’t do it again. Now that, now that everybody’s eyes are on them and it just kept on happening over and over again. And I think myself along with millions of other people were just outraged.
It’s really horrible that, uh, the police murdered black people, but it was also really horrible that they got off scot-free.
And a big part of the reason why that was happening was because of this judicial doctrine that was passed, uh, in the sixties, actually, uh, essentially saying that you can’t sue a police officer.
ASHLEY [VO]: He’s talking about qualified immunity here, a type of legal protection for police officers that makes it really hard to press charges against them.
BEN: If a police officer violates your constitutional rights, if he abuses you, uh, if he kills you, you know, your family, if you try to sue them, it gets thrown out of court.
It’s essentially saying to police officers that they have carte blanche. That police officers are literally above the law. There’s no accountability.
ASHLEY: Right, right. And where there’s no accountability, um, is always ripe, really ripe for, cruelty.
Some people would say or they would question why accountability even matters. They’ll say, you know, the life has already been lost. Why ruin two lives instead. These are arguments that you see on the news. These are arguments that you see on social media. Um, but accountability does matter. Can you, can you talk to us a little bit about why.
JERRY: I mean, first of all, we have to say that the way things are going now, uh, is not acceptable. And so that’s the starting point. For Ben and myself being in business for so many years. I think one thing we’ve learned is that accountability is the key to getting the results you desire. And if people are not held accountable, uh, you do not get the results you want.
But when people’s rights are violated, you have two things that are happening: first, you have victims. And, uh, when you hear what has happened to people and the stories that go with that, it just tears your heart out. Uh, when you talk to mothers, sons, brothers, whatever, who’ve lost a loved one and they have no recourse. They have no justice.
And then on the other hand, you have the people that are committing these egregious acts, and there’s no accountability on their side. There’s, there’s two things that need to be addressed in this. It’s not just the accountability. It’s, it’s the injustice and the victims as well.
BEN: And, it’s one thing to, to demonstrate, but you, you need to pivot and turn protest into policy.
MUX [“ES_Instant Vintage” licensed through Epidemic Sound]
ASHLEY [VO]: In 2021, Ben wanted to take his action further. While researching police reform, he found 12 cases where justice was hindered by qualified immunity. He took all that he’d learned and put it into a book called ‘Above the Law: How qualified immunity protects violent police’.
BEN: Yeah, it was eye opening. You know, you hear about, you know, a few cases that end up making it into the news that happened to have been filmed on a video, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I mean, it’s, it’s going on all the time. And you know, you, you think about, I think about this guy, David Collie, who was a Black man, uh, you know, working at a supermarket, uh, going to film school, uh, he was, it was in the evening he was going to visit a friend. Uh, he was in the parking lot of the friend’s apartment house and.
This unmarked car, uh, stops and, uh, you know, somebody yells out from it, Hey, where are you going? And, you know, he points to the apartment and, uh, and the other person shoots him. And, uh, he ends up being paralyzed for life, uh, you know, from, from the waist down. I, and it turned out that these were two, uh, off duty cops that were, uh, you know, moonlighting as a security guards.
And, uh, they had heard, uh, over their radio that, uh, someone who was described as a, as a black person who was way taller and way heavier than David Collie. Uh, had stolen some sneakers, and so they, I don’t know, they -
BEN: They shot him.
ASHLEY [VO]: David Collie survived after being shot by police in 2016, but he died earlier this year, in February 2022. He was 38.
BEN: So, you know, it’s, it’s a different world for people that, uh, are poor and not white. And, uh, you know. I mean, you talk to black people and they run into the situations like this, you know, uh, on a regular basis. I mean, you know. Maybe they don’t get beat up, but they get stopped and, uh, interrogated and, and, and thrown against the car, thrown against the floor. You know, I don’t know. It just goes on.
JERRY: When you get into the details of each individual case, uh, and, and just the injustice of it, you know, as, as Ben says, uh, it’s, it mostly happens to people who are not white and people who are poor. So in my everyday interactions, I don’t really experience this. Uh, I’m sort of treated at a different way. Uh, and I think. It’s probably true for a lot of people in this country. And if they would simply put themselves in the shoes of somebody else, uh, it would be very, very different how they felt about it.
BEN: I feel like when you’re faced with situations of injustice, uh, you have three choices. You can complain about it. You can ignore it or you can try to do something. We decided to try to do something about it.
ASHLEY [VO]: So they launched the Campaign to End Qualified Immunity. One part of that campaign was rallying behind the Player’s Coalition, a group of more than 1400 professional athletes and coaches who’d drafted an open letter urging lawmakers to end qualified immunity; Ben and Jerry leveraged their connections and got more than 650 business leaders to sign the letter.
Another part of the campaign is Ben’s book, Above the Law, which includes a push for real policy change.
BEN: It’s in reach in our lifetime. Uh, I think it’s going to need a lot of people putting a lot of effort into it, and there are a lot of people, but we need more.
And the interesting thing about policing is that you actually have the power as a person who lives in a particular municipality to, make sure that they don’t write up these contracts that are biased in favor of, uh, the police.
ASHLEY: There’s a saying, you know, blessed are the ones who plant trees under whose shade they will never sit. And I hear that quote, and I think about all of the things that I want to see different in the world, all the ways that I can imagine the world functioning in a way that values, equality and peace and, and parity and all of those things. How do you think about the long term struggle to find justice?
BEN: In this kind of work, uh, you have to realize that, you know, you’re just one link in a giant chain and people have been working on this before you, and there’ll be working on it after.
And everybody needs to do what they’re able to do from where they sit. But everybody’s got to do something.
JERRY: You know, I think people talk about it as movement building, and... It really is about people. How do you combat these really wealthy, powerful interests? And the only way to do it is with millions and millions of people. It’s gotta be people saying enough is enough, uh, and insisting that, that things change.
ASHLEY: I love that the both of you are really, um, great examples of what is possible, um, when people are able to hold on to themselves and hold on to their values, even when they see a kind of success that we think of as uncommon for those values, I feel really inspired by that. I think it’s not just me and I really, really look forward to more people getting to hear about more of the things that you two have been involved in, to hear more about your journeys and your stories, it has been a pleasure to get to talk with you today. And I hope I get to do it again in the future.
BEN: Thanks a lot, Ashley.
JERRY: Thank you so much. This has been great.
ASHLEY: Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and A-B-F Creative.
This episode was written by Bethany Denton with production help from Ken Miles and Gary Swaby. The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producer Bethany Denton, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan.
The team from A-B-F Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. Sound design, mixing, and mastering by Chris Mann. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact-checking by Girl Friday Productions.
The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro, and Chris Miller.
I’m Ashley C Ford. Thanks for listening.