Originally published November 28th, 2014
I will admit. I have been known to be starstruck in my time. And I am now. But this star is sitting in front of me wearing sweat pants, sneakers, and has grey hair and a beard. When I walked into the room to interview him he gave me a huge bear hug, did the obligatory selfie, listened carefully when I told him what I do, and constantly questioned me about whether I was happy with the way the interview was going; whether he should sit closer to the voice recorder. This is definitely not your typical star. It is also not your typical multi-million dollar founder. But when I asked him to pose for a photo holding a sign saying “Be The Changer”, he quietly took it off me and - whilst he thought no-one else was looking - added first one and then, on second thoughts, two, exclamation marks. That says it all. This is a professional who cares about the small things, knows what he wants and goes about getting it - in the nicest possible way.
We were invited to interview Jerry Greenfield as part of the Ben & Jerry’s competition “Join Our Core”, which is co-created with Ashoka and whose aim is to identify some of the world’s most promising young social entrepreneurs and give them more visibility, a share in Ashoka’s expertise and 10,000 EUR in seed financing. We already profiled the company as part of our preparation for the partnership but - to catch up the newbies - Ben & Jerry’s is an ice cream company which has been built on the basis of community business principles: a business which should serve the needs of the people and not the other way around. Their brand slogan is “Making Ice Cream in the Nicest Possible Way”. So whilst they are not a Social Business in the strictest sense of the word, they are most definitely a social business, and have managed to prove that it is possible to be highly profitable and treat and pay your employees well, have sustainable supply chains and use your influence to make controversial political statements and raise awareness. At least that’s what it says on paper. So… what did Jerry have to say about all that?
Have Fun. Live Your Purpose.
We started the interview by talking about his motivations for getting started. Having listened yesterday to the pitches of Europe’s brightest young minds in the world of social entrepreneurship, their stories and their huge visions, I was prepared for a similar onslaught. But no. “Honestly we pretty much stumbled into it. You know, we were nothing compared to the kids who got up on the stage yesterday. They already have their purpose. We didn’t have a purpose back then. We just wanted to find something which would be fun, to do at least for a summer. We didn’t start out with social impact at the core of our business - that developed organically. We had tried loads of different things already and failed. I wanted to get into medical school and kept on failing miserably. Ben had decided to be a potter, but nobody was buying his pots.” So how did it turn into what it is? According to Jerry at least, that was all down to Ben. “Ben is an extraordinary person, he is an activist through and through and for him it couldn’t just be an ice cream company. Ben is a very holistic person. Whilst everybody else lives compartmentalised lives where they do business to make money and then after work they do their non-profit stuff on a voluntary basis for their social side and then fit their family life around all that, that wasn’t the way Ben wanted to - or even could - be. According to him business is the most powerful force in the world. Social and environmental concerns can’t just be something you do on the side. You have to solve social and environmental challenges when you are at your most powerful. And you are at your most powerful when you are doing business. Apply your values to everything you do. The problem is that life doesn’t work like that right now. We are taught to compartmentalise things. In fact it is pretty difficult to break out of the structures that society has defined for us and it took somebody like Ben to make that happen for us. I was lucky to have him as my business partner”.
Ben. Ben seems to be the driving force behind the social element of Ben & Jerry’s - or at least that is what Jerry would have me believe. Unless he is a really good actor though, it seems like this former hippy and wannabe doctor probably had something to do with it too. Is it the “empathy factor”, which Ashoka has established as the one of the key indicators for successful social entrepreneurship? Probably. Whatever you call it, he is certainly one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. Anyway, I digress. We wanted to talk about Ben. So, Ben and Jerry, as it turns out, have been friends since they were 13. What would they recommend to other friends thinking of starting a business? “Trust. We trusted each other wholeheartedly. Not only had we known each other since we were 13, we had both been fat kids”. I am not sure whether this is one of his jokes. How to react? He doesn’t laugh. “There is an understanding which comes out of a friendship between two fat kids which goes extremely deep” he added wistfully. “And we both loved food. So, that also made it easier”. The moment of tenseness is broken and everybody laughs again. But it is clear that this experience of being an outsider - and the common bond which developed out of going through that together - has been integral to the development of their friendship and business. “What is most important is that you are both aligned on the bigger vision - on the why and the what. Then it doesn’t matter about the smaller things - you should disagree on those.”
Create Something Bigger Than Yourself.
So what has been their biggest learning along the way? “That there will always be stumbling blocks. Don’t expect things to be easy. Try lots of things. Make lots of mistakes. Try again”. So, since we were on the topic, was now the time to mention the elephant in the room? The fact that Ben and Jerry ended up having to sell their beloved company to one of the world’s largest multinationals as a result of shareholder pressure? Of course it was. Exits, after all, are a huge issue for many social entrepreneurs who need additional investment to reach the kind of scale that Ben & Jerry’s has been able to. So what did he have to say about that? “Painful” was his first and refreshingly honest response. “It was painful and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. As a business with values, it is SO important to bake those values into your business so they can’t ever be removed, whatever happens. And that isn’t easy because they are dependent on so many factors and personality comes into so much of it. But you have to. And you have to start thinking about it early. Because the bigger and more complex a company gets, the harder that becomes. Formalise your purpose into your venture. Integrate your social and environmental principles into the core of your business. Separate everything from yourself as a founder or the team you have created.” Firm advice from a person who had to learn the hard way (to be fair they did negotiate a pretty good deal with Unilever which allowed them to retain the “social” part). “Patagonia is a fantastic example of a company which has done it differently - managing to remain a private company and committed to its founding principles. It is possible. But plan for all eventualities.”
Be a changer.
In the end, business was the most powerful force for Ben & Jerry’s. But being a social business has allowed them to develop a global brand, retain employees over periods of 30 years and continue to appeal to a young and increasingly conscious and critical generation. So what is it, at the heart of it all, that makes Jerry a Changer? “Being lucky enough to work with somebody who is so ridiculously determined to change everything, every day. Not accepting things the way they are. Never being satisfied.” And, perhaps, putting an exclamation mark at the end of everything you do.