The social good: an interview with Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s

13 Jun 2013

Jerry Greenfield, co-founder, Ben & Jerry's

In 1978 in rural Vermont in the United States, Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen founded an ice cream brand that has resonated around the world chiefly thanks to their ethic of doing business in a socially conscious way. Today, 10 young social entrepreneurs from around Europe were awarded as part of Ben & Jerry’s Join Our Core competition, including the co-founder of CoderDojo James Whelton.

Most people know Ben & Jerry’s products for their distinctive flavours and the innovative packaging and marketing with cows on the cartons. The company’s humble origins that included starting out with just a US$12,000 investment are the stuff of business legend.

But one of the hallmarks of the enterprise has been a steadfast concern for the social and environmental challenges the world faces and an unswerving belief that doing right by others is the best way to lead a business.

The ice cream brand has engaged in environmental campaigns – on World Earth Day 2005 the company plonked the world’s largest Baked Alaska outside Congress to protest a vote on oil drilling in an Arctic Wildlife Refuge – as well as campaigns on equal marriage for same-sex couples and better quality education for children.

In Europe the brand has been championing social entrepreneurship via its Join Our Core competition. Last year John Egan from the not-for-profit community of young entrepreneurs in Ireland and the UK Archipelago won the local award for Ireland.

Today, CoderDojo co-founder James Whelton scooped the award along with nine other young social entrepreneurs from around Europe. Two years ago Whelton started up non-profit organisation CoderDojo on a Saturday morning with the simple idea that kids would show up and with the help of mentors learn how to code. Today, more than 16,000 children worldwide are taught to code every Saturday in more than 120 dojos in 22 countries, including places such as LA, Silicon Valley, Tokyo, Africa and the Caribbean – all on a voluntary basis.

CoderDojo will receive €10,000 in award money and its brand will feature on Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream cartons in 2014.

Thinking beyond the bottom line

I asked Greenfield what it was about CoderDojo that resonated with the judging panel. “James is a superstar,” he laughs, pointing out Whelton is a little embarrassed at that moment.

“The thing about CoderDojo is at this stage it is still young but it has seen incredible growth and impact. The judges felt that here is a tremendous opportunity to address unemployment in the coming years by having young people not only learn these essential skills but to be able to transfer them to other young people as well.”

I put it to Greenfield that while there is a strong theme of social consciousness at work in Ben & Jerry’s that’s not always the perception people have of businesses in general. If anything in the wake of what has been the longest recession in living memory, I ask him what it is businesses need to do to win back the trust of consumers.

“Well, I think there is a healthy skepticism about businesses among consumers. And that’s good because business often operates in its own self-interest without a concern for the larger community.

“I think if business genuinely and honestly tries to take in community concerns that are beyond and above its bottom line and then consumers can trust those companies. At least, in terms of big business and large public companies that I’m familiar with, their bottom line is their financial bottom line and everything else comes after that.

“Fortunately I think there’s a change coming. In the case of Ben & Jerry’s what we found was that as the company became more involved in community interests the company actually became more successful financially.”

I point out that businesses struggling to survive financially don’t often see the woods for the trees because they are struggling to keep people in jobs and make sales.

“What we sometimes say, Ben and myself, is that there’s a spiritual aspect to business; that as you give you receive and that as you help others you are helped in return.

“I think most people believe that in their heart of hearts and their daily lives but for some reason when they go into a business setting they forget that. But I think it is a spiritual law and it holds true for businesses just as it does for the lives of individuals.”

Technology for the people, by the people

In these technologically advanced times of social networks and smartphones – a world removed from Cohen and Greenfield’s more simpler start-up days in rural Vermont in the late 1970s – I suggest that a more plugged in global community will require businesses to be more accountable for their actions.

“Yes, I think there will be more transparency and more honesty in business because of the democratisation of these social resources. It’s kind of funny when you think about social media in business, which businesses now see as an essential way to reach customers. What businesses find is they now need to be genuine and honest with their customers and that way they become more trustworthy, and that’s now seen as a kind of a business strategy to become honest with your customers. It’s just kind of ironic I guess.

“Some of the entries we are seeing for Join Our Core are about using technological resources to help people around the world create more of a sharing economy and more of a giving economy and it is nice to see the combining of that technology with human concern.”

Greenfield introduces me to Felicity McClean of social entrepreneurship fellowship Ashoka who agrees that younger entrepreneurs are interpreting the internet and social media not solely as a way of making money but ideally to help each other.

“I agree with Jerry, it is a platform upon which young people are creating a solution. I think the theme is wider: connecting people and communities and giving people access to things that they don’t necessarily have access to, be it skills, time, resources.

“There was one platform from the Netherlands this year which was about connecting neighbours so they can lend things to each other. That is actually the way that Generation Y interacts: ‘we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we’ll go to where our communities are and they are online.’”

Sustainable growth requires stumbling occasionally


CoderDojo co-founder James Whelton

Whelton said that winning the award from a socially-conscious, sustainable business such as Ben & Jerry’s meant a lot to CoderDojo and its supporters. “It’s an organisation we have tremendous respect for – they were able to integrate a sustainable business and have a win-win situation for everything.

“That they can recognise us as a good organisation doing good things and having a good impact is an incredible honour. All the work we’ve done and the entire community that is CoderDojo, particularly with regards to the whole social entrepreneur movement and given the doom and gloom and recession, the times we are in have pushed people to think about improving the community.

Look at so many of the traditional safe professions that aren’t as safe anymore, like law for example, the current economy is actually pushing people to be creative and a bit more altruistic.

“We are just delighted, particularly with the internet being so empowering for people to be able to spread a message or create greater impact not just in our own locale but nationally and internationally. We can equip young people with those social skills and create an environment where they help each other and try and do good.

“Hopefully when they enter the real world as adults they can use these skills to make massive change and impact. Particularly, we’re seeing things like Net Neutrality being challenged and all sorts of forces trying to impeach on our privacy, so as a society we need to better understand the true depth of that so we can better deal with it and oppose it where it needs be.

“On the one hand technology is empowering people, but on the other it is bringing people to the next level,” Whelton said.

I asked Greenfield a final question about the parallels he has seen between starting a socially conscious business in 1978 and being an entrepreneur in 2013. Technology aside, he said there are no parallels “except, just get up off your ass and do it.

“I think one of the elements that is as true now as then was you need to be willing to take a risk and that sometimes something you do won’t work, and that that is okay.

“Doing things that don’t work is an essential part of a learning process and the journey is to keep moving forward and that stumbling is not necessarily stopping.

“You are stumbling with the intention of moving forward more quickly,” he concludes with an enigmatic chuckle.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years