Ice cream’s Jerry urges businesses to all scream

Abha Bhattarai

Businesses should be socially conscious and give back to the community as much as possible, Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Jerry Greenfield told a crowd of 250 students and Evanston residents at Tech Auditorium on Wednesday evening.

“A business supports a community,” Greenfield said. “People think it’s rocket science, but it’s common sense. Businesses should not be separate from the rest of our lives.”

Greenfield said he and partner Ben Cohen have always tried to be socially responsible. They introduced their company’s initial public stock offer to Vermont residents because they wanted to offer community members a sense of ownership that wouldn’t be possible if they’d hired venture capitalists.

“We realized that we weren’t just ice cream guys anymore, we were businessmen,” Greenfield said. “We weren’t behind the counter scooping ice cream for our customers anymore, we were spending our time hiring and writing, writing memos and talking to lawyers and accountants. It wasn’t our idea of a good time. We felt like we were another cog in the economic machine and we didn’t want any part of it.”

He and Cohen met as 7th graders in New York. Together, they decided that the company’s mission had an added emphasis on community involvement.

“We measure how much money we make, but we also measure how much we were able to contribute to the communities where we operate,” he said.

Greenfield’s talk was part of Hillel’s annual speaker series. In the past, the series has brought Jon Stewart and Al Franken to campus.

“We wanted students to see that they need to take the initiative in creating their own future,” said Weinberg senior Miriam Robinovitz, the event’s coordinator. “We also wanted someone who would stress the importance of giving back to the community.”

Ben and Jerry’s other community efforts include the company’s partner shops that offer job opportunities and business training to at-risk youth. One of the shops is in Evanston at 1634 Orrington Ave.

Students said the company’s unique business model is an innovative step in encouraging businesses to take responsibility.

“He had a lot of interesting insight in the role business should play in the fabric of American society,” Weinberg freshman Jason Gutstein said as he ate free ice cream provided at the event. “I think it’s important that he has taken steps to make it acceptable for business to take an actual role in addressing social problems.”

Greenfield and Cohen started the business in a renovated gas station with used equipment and a $4,000 loan. Their first store offered basic flavors; signatures such as Heath Bar Crunch, Greenfield’s favorite, and Cherry Garcia, Cohen’s favorite, came later.

“Starting small was actually good,” Greenfield said. “You are forced to do everything yourself. You can’t just throw money at a problem.”

Reach Abha Bhattarai at [email protected]