The entrepreneurs behind Ben & Jerry’s tell story of success, social responsibility

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield shared their business journey in the University Chapel


Middle school friends took their passion for eating and created Ben & Jerry’s. Photo by Adelaide Loving, ’25

Erin Brennan, Staff Writer

With a $5 course on how to make ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield went on to challenge the way we typically believe that success is measured through their company, Ben & Jerry’s.
“What Jerry and I began to understand is that there is a spiritual aspect to business just as there is to the lives of individuals,” said Cohen. “As you give, you receive. As you help others, you’re helped in return. As a business supports the community, the community supports the business.”
On March 9, the Contact Committee invited Cohen and Greenfield to share their story—one that the committee describes as an inspiring tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit—and their ice cream with Washington and Lee University students.
Greenfield began the talk by sharing the details behind and humor within the story of how “two hippies” navigated the business world. Cohen concluded with his observations that businesses have the power to stop the issues that he believes currently plague this country.
After failing at everything that they thought they wanted to do after high school graduation, middle school friends Cohen and Greenfield decided to work together and be their own bosses. Greenfield said since they both loved eating, they thought of starting a business in the food industry which resulted in the idea of an ice cream shop.
Greenfield joked that Cohen and he “finally found the type of education that was optimized for [their] unique learning style” after receiving perfect scores on every open-note exam in their ice cream textbook.
In the pursuit of a college town with no ice cream shop competition, 26-year-old Cohen and Greenfield settled in Burlington, Vermont, home of the University of Vermont.
Ben & Jerry’s opened its doors in May of 1978 after the duo saved money by renovating an old gas station.
Greenfield said the ice cream store survived during the winter season through campaigns like POPCDBZWE (Penny Off Per Celsius Degree Below Zero Winter Extravaganza) and sales through local restaurants.
Cohen’s idea to sell ice cream to mom-and-pop grocery stores brought them one step closer to the company’s big break. Ben & Jerry’s was becoming a sustainable business, relying on local distributors to deliver their pint containers. Greenfield said when they formed a deal with distributors in Boston, it confirmed that their ice cream would be sold in a major metropolitan market.
Not too long after this development, the distributors revealed that they could no longer work with Ben & Jerry’s. Their most profitable brand, Häagen-Dazs, owned by the Pillsbury Company, warned the distributors that they would cut ties with them unless they stopped carrying Ben & Jerry’s products.
Cohen couldn’t stop laughing at this news.
“I can’t believe that Pillsbury is worried about little old Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington, Vermont,” Greenfield recalled Cohen saying at the time.
Rather than go to the Federal Trade Commission, Ben and Jerry went straight to their customers to get them involved. The “What’s the doughboy afraid of?” campaign was officially launched. There was such a large public response that Pillsbury backed down.
Greenfield said that at this point in their career, they were truly becoming businessmen, which is something they never envisioned. Due to their experience of growing up during the 1960s, they had a very negative perspective of business and its exploitation of its employees and the environment.
At a time when they were considering leaving their business all behind, Greenfield said he remembers a conversation between Cohen and their friend, Maurice Purpoa.
Greenfield said that Purpoa asked, “Ben, if there’s something you don’t like about the way that business is done, why don’t you just change it?”
With newfound motivation to change the definition of business, Cohen and Greenfield decided to raise capital by having the first ever in-state public stock offer. Rather than relying on venture capital, they made their Vermont community members owners of the business. If the business prospered, the community owners would too.
Their advisers warned the duo not to make this choice since it had never been done before. But the partners were determined.
“If we are going to grow our business, we want to do it in a way that’s consistent with our values,” Greenfield said.
At the conclusion of the public stock offer, one out of every 100 families in Vermont had become owners of Ben & Jerry’s.
Greenfield said the company later became funded nationally, which allowed for the creation of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. The foundation was soon overwhelmed with grant requests from charities, but only a small amount could be satisfied. Today, the social justice organization is still funded by 7.5% of the company’s annual pre-tax profits.
Cohen and Greenfield divided the bottom line of their business into two parts. One part addressed the typical goal of a business, maximizing profits. The other part dealt with their social impact.
Cohen said he continues to believe that businesses in the for-profit world will never solve societal concerns until they begin choosing courses of action that have a positive effect on both parts of their bottom line.
To implement this strategy, Ben & Jerry’s partnered with a Native American tribe in Maine for their wild blueberries and a cooperative in Mexico for their coffee beans to create new flavors. Cohen also pushed to use the packaging on their Peace Pops “to advocate for shifting 1% of the US Defense Policy budget out of the Pentagon” and into exchanges between the people of the United States and the Soviet Union.
Despite Unilever’s acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, Cohen and Greenfield still advocate for important causes, such as trying “to get the police in the country to be as accountable as everyone else in our country.”
Cohen said that although he and Greenfield are no longer CEOs, their foundational rejection of the “single-minded pursuit” of maximizing profits, in favor of addressing social concerns, still rings true.
“Why don’t we just change the way we measure success?” Cohen asked.