The Idol Life

Ben & Jerry

Jerry Greenfield was trying to become a doctor. Ben Cohen was trying to become a potter. They joke that their foray into entrepreneurship re-sulted from being failures at what they were trying to do in their careers. Today, Ben and Jerry's names are synonymous with socially responsible business and all-natural ice cream in innovative flavors.

Starting with one ice cream shop in a reno-vated Vermont gas station in 1978, by 1999, Ben & Jerry's had more than $237 million in sales from nearly 200 shops and a vast array of products sold in grocery stores and other outlets.

Blast From the Past
We ran an excerpt from Ben & Jerry's Double Dip in 1997; read it here .

More than just a monetary success, however, the pair brought to entrepreneurship a responsibility-to be a good business, not simply do good business. "The prevailing thought had been that [being] a business engaged in social activities would take away from your ability to make money," says Jerry. "The more our company was involved with social interests, the more profitable we became."

As entrepreneurs, Ben and Jerry are complementary opposites. Says Jerry, "I'm more of a supportive person. Ben is a visionary. He would rather fail at something new than do something that has already been done before. Sometimes you just have to let someone go with something."

In 2000, Ben and Jerry struggled with letting go in a different sense. Under pressure from their board, they sold their company to a major conglomerate, Uni-lever. "It was a very difficult time emotionally," says Jerry. Neither will discuss the selling of their company further, preferring to talk about their current work.

Ben, no longer with the company bearing his name, is enthusiastic about his main projects: The Priorities! Campaign, focusing on education and health care for children, and several VC funds for social-minded entrepreneurs (see October's " Money Buzz ").

Jerry is still employed by his former company, working with the Ben & Jerry's Foundation to fund nonprofit organizations dealing with grass-roots democracy and various globalization issues.

Looking back, Jerry says he and Ben worked well together because of the different qualities each brought to the business. "If either of us had started it on our own," he says, "we would have failed-or not been as successful."

Entrepreneur: How do you define "entrepreneur"?
Ben Cohen: [Someone who] has a tremendous amount of drive and is willing to sacrifice most anything to bring this business vision to fruition.

Entrepreneur: Who is your idea of an entrepreneurial icon?
Jerry Greenfield: It's Ben. He's the one who keeps looking under rocks. He doesn't really need to look under rocks-he sees ideas on top of rocks.
Ben: Paul Newman. He knew what assets he had-his name, his face, his reputation. [And he created] a business to raise money for charities.

Entrepreneur: How do you keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive?
Jerry: Getting the right people in the company is the most critical thing. If you don't have people who believe in [your] mission, you run into problems.

Entrepreneur: What was your dream when you started out?
Jerry: Ice cream for the people. We realized early on that the only way to stay in business was if the community was supporting us.

Entrepreneur: What's your legacy?
Jerry: I hope the message from the company was that you could have a business that was not in existence solely to make money; it had a purpose and mission that was larger than that. And that [entrepreneurs] who want to have businesses that address social needs can do that in a way that also makes money.
Ben: What he said. And on top of that, to have a role that is restorative, to help make things better, not just not do bad. On a very small scale, Ben & Jerry's demonstrated that.

Related Books

Aliza Sherman is a web pioneer, e-entrepreneur and author of eight books, including

PowerTools for Women in Business.

Her work can be found at

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This article was originally published in the January 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Idol Life.

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