Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: University Park, Centre County
Ice cream pioneers and activists Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield began their career with Penn State's Ice Cream course.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are life-long friends and the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Incorporated. They began with taking a five dollar correspondence course at The Pennsylvania State University and turned the idea into a unique, multi-million dollar business. In 2000, Ben and Jerry sold the company to Unilever, but remain influential in its management. By working closely with many organizations like Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Ben & Jerry Foundation, they continue their mission to make it businesses’ responsibility to give back to the community and bring values to the corporate world.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were born a mere four days apart in the same Brooklyn hospital in 1951. Jerry was born on March 14, and Bennett was born on March 18. As children they grew up less than two miles apart, but they went to separate elementary schools. Jerry attended Smith Street Elementary, and Ben went to Old Mill Elementary School, graduating as valedictorian of his class. Though the two were both placed in the advanced curriculum at Merrick Avenue Junior High School, they ironically met as the overweight kids in their seventh-grade gym class. The following year Ben was moved to another junior high school due to overcrowding at Merrick, and the two were not able to truly begin their friendship until they met again on the first day of class in 1966 at Calhoun High School. Upon graduation, both went to college in order to receive deferment from military service in the Vietnam War. Jerry enrolled at Oberlin College, and Ben began his short college career at Colgate University in 1969. The summer between Ben’s freshman and sophomore years of college first introduced him to the ice cream industry, serving ice cream out of a Pied Piper truck. After only three semesters at Colgate, Ben dropped out and moved back home to Long Island. He would soon return to Pied Piper as a box man in their ice cream freezers. Jerry eventually finished his schooling at Oberlin in 1973 as a pre-med major, but he was never accepted to medical school, despite taking classes at New York University to increase his chances. From 1971 to 1974, Ben enrolled in the University Without Walls at Skidmore College, and he took courses related to his interests of jewelry making and pottery. For a number of years Ben and Jerry jumped from job to job in several states based on whims, romance, and curiosity. In 1977, they both finally settled in Saratoga Springs, New York, planning to go into business with each other. Since Ben and Jerry had always shared an interest of food, they decided that their business would involve food. Their original plan, as stated in Fred Lager’s book, Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop, was to start a business that sold bagels on Sundays called the United Bagel Service, but after they researched the start up costs they decided to go into the ice cream business. The prospective businessmen decided to split the cost of a five dollar correspondence course in ice cream making from The Pennsylvania State University, and they both passed with A’s. According to the timeline on the their official website, Ben and Jerry’s next step was renovating an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont, a college town. They opened their first ice cream parlor in Burlington on May 5, 1978, with an investment of $12,000. Because they had immediate success with the store, they began selling pints out of Jerry’s car to other vendors in the area. Within the first five years, franchises bean popping up in neighboring states as well. By 1986, Ben and Jerry’s established a new manufacturing plant in Waterbury and made themselves a public company. According to an article by Alex Taylor, they also began donating seven and a half percent of their company’s annual earnings to the newly formed Ben and Jerry Foundation, which funded community-oriented projects and other non-profit organizations. In 1987, Jerry married his long-time girlfriend Dr. Elizabeth Skarie, who gave birth to their only son, Tyrone, the following year. In 1988, Ben and Jerry’s community-oriented approach was formally recognized when the Council on Economic Priorities presented them with the Corporate Giving Award based on their work for their foundation. They were again honored when President Ronald Reagan and the United States Small Business Administration named them the United States Small Business Persons of the Year. Throughout the next decade, Ben and Jerry used their products to address social and environmental issues. They worked alongside other active groups to address issues including education, the use of hormones in food, health care, global warming, and alternative uses for government weapons spending. The dynamic business leaders received the James Beard Humanitarians of the Year Award in 1993 and the Peace Museum’s Community Peacemakers of the Year Award in 1997. Ben and Jerry also applied the values-led concept to cultivate markets globally in Canada, Europe, Japan, the Middle East, Russia, and South America. As described in Is Ben and Jerry Losing its Bohemian Appeal?, the company grew to its peak in a successful attempt when they reestablished what the company stood for: modern hippiedom, adult fun, letting go, and rediscovering the child in you. Therefore, they made their product a down-to-earth alternative to more sophisticated brands. Before the beginning of the new millennium, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Incorporated was reaching annual net sales of nearly $250 million. However, on April 12, 2000, after a failed attempt to return the company to private ownership, Ben and Jerry sold their company to the Unilever Corporation for over $325 million. The sale included a unique agreement, calling for the separation of the Ben & Jerry’s brand from other ice cream businesses Unilever owned in order to maintain its existing social mission and brand integrity. Ben and Jerry continue to give to 1% For Peace, now known as Businesses for Social Responsibility, and to the Ben & Jerry Foundation. In 2009, Unilever granted $2 million to the Foundation for community-oriented projects and other non-profit organizations. Jerry is currently the President of the Trustees for the Ben and Jerry Foundation. He also has a seat on the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities. In 2007, Ben co-authored Values Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun with Mal Warwick, which stresses environmental and social consciousness. They also both present speeches and lectures throughout the United States through the Greater Talent Network. Ben and Jerry pioneered a new kind of corporation that finds new ways to think and act for social, institutional, and environmental change.
Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip: How to Run a Values-Led Business and Make Money, Too. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book. (with Nancy Stevens) New York: Workman Publications, 1987.
Values Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun. (Ben Cohen and Mal Warwick). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007.
Arnold, Matthew. “Is Ben & Jerry’s Losing Its Bohemian Appeal?” 3 May 2001: 17. Marketing. ProQuest.
Ben & Jerry’s Consumer Services. What are Ben & Jerry’s Birthdates? E-mail to Nicholas Anthony. 9 Oct. 2006.