Ben & Jerry's co-founder highlights social activism in Entrepalooza keynote
Entrepalooza served up a sweet treat to aspiring entrepreneurs Friday night in the Michigan League.
Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield addressed about 200 University of Michigan students, faculty members and entrepreneurs from the community at the 17th annual Entrepalooza, sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute.
The institute partnered with the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship, Innovate Blue, MPowered and other colleges and student groups for the event, with the theme of creativity.
In his remarks, moderated by Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Zell Lurie Institute, Greenfield emphasized that Ben & Jerry's wanted to be more than a typical business.
“Ben and I are seen as entrepreneurs that not only built a financially successful business but also a business that’s based on values and has a mission that’s beyond making great ice cream,” he said.
Stewart Thornhill event moderator and executive director of the Zell Lurie Institute said the ideas of creativity and entrepreneurship as one in the same.
“How creative you are, how you come up with ideas, how you approach solving problems, that’s a skill that you can learn and practice and cultivate,” he said.
The Ben & Jerry’s origin story, as told by Greenfield, was much like how many small businesses start. Ben Cohen and Greenfield met in in gym class in junior high. After both dropping out of different universities and Greenfield getting denied from medical schools, they decided to open an ice cream shop in an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Suddenly, their small scoop shop was not as small as they had originally planned.
Greenfield said he was not sure what to do with their newfound success, and wasn't comfortable with typical operating procedures for businesses at the time.
“We were becoming a business. We thought we were gonna be ice cream guys and sure enough, it was shocking to us,” he said. “We were actually gonna get out of the business. It was a friend of Ben’s that convinced him that if there were things we didn’t like about business, (he) should just change them.”
Many attendees, including Thornhill, pointed to Ben & Jerry’s as a pioneer for companies taking a stance on social and environmental issues. Thornhill described the company as a model for young entrepreneurs who want to use businesses to give back to their communities.
“Ben & Jerry’s was a different kind of company. Many of the students that I talk to, more and more of them are interested in doing entrepreneurship but only to the extent that it accomplishes some social mission other than making profits,” he said. “Thirty years ago, Ben & Jerry’s was adopting this formula when they were one of the only voices.”
In the 1980s, Ben & Jerry’s created an institutional mandate that employees could never exceed more than five times what the lowest-paid employee made in salary, making a political statement against low wages in the manufacturing industry. Cohen made $81,000 as a part of this rule — in comparison, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO annual compensation in 1989 was $276,900.
Greenfield said he is proud of the work the company has done recently to make sure social issues aren’t being swept under the rug.
“Ben & Jerry’s has been publicly supportive of Occupy Wall Street which is essentially an anti-corporate movement,” he said. “Ben & Jerry’s has been outspoken about marriage equality… Ben & Jerry’s has been outspoken about voting rights and voter suppression.”
Greenfield also used anecdotes and stories to discuss his experience, telling the crowd. Cohen wanted to use a chocolate-covered ice cream bar called a Peace Pop to promote the redirection of 1 percent of the national military budget towards peace-promoting programs.
“What people want are businesses that are genuine, that are honest, that have some edge… If you wanna have edge, stand for something. Tell the truth. Make it part of your business,” he said.
LSA freshman Mary O’Byrne said she was impressed by Cohen and Greenfield’s ability to stick to their values while dealing with success.
“I hadn’t know how small and local they were, that they had no motive to become a big business, and the way that they went about keeping their mission throughout becoming an internationally-known ice cream company… was amazing,” she said. “I’m really supportive of that.”
Jeremy Fallis, the marketing and communications maven at the Center for Entrepreneurship, said he took away that that their primary goal was not profit, but change.
“It’s not all about making money,” he said. “Sure, they made money in the end, but they stuck true to what they are.”