Best Practices

Arkansas SourceLink: Enhancing Business Success Through Public Service, How Ben & Jerry's Became So Good

Published Nov 18, 2013

Enhancing Business Success through Public Service: How Ben & Jerry’s became so Good

By: Greg Cooper; digital literacy instructional staff at Arkansas Capital Corporation


If you believe that failure gets you nowhere and that businesses can’t promote the common good for all, then you should talk to Ben Cohen.

Cofounder of Ben and Jerry’s, Cohen spoke to a packed house at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service on October 22nd. And yes, free ice cream was handed out to everyone afterwards. 

The Ben & Jerry story starts back to Cohen’s childhood friendship with his now business partner, Jerry Greenfield. Cohen fondly recalled being the two largest kids in their junior high gym class and the bond formed by always being the very last two to finish running laps together. 

After graduating high school, Cohen tried going to college, only to successfully drop out of about five different institutions. Greenfield, meanwhile, finished college with good grades in four years but would later drop out of med school. After falling so hard the old friends decided that the only thing they could do to pull themselves up was to start a business. Considering that their favorite activity was eating, they knew it had to be about food.

Starting with very few assets and no businesses skills, the two realized that they were terrible candidates for venture capital. So they applied for a small businesses loan and, after some major twist and turns, found themselves the owners of an ice cream store in the small college town of Burlington, Vermont. 

Despite the long harsh winters, their business began to pick-up traction and they wanted to see if their success could be a force to bring social good to their community. Although they seriously doubted it was possible. 

Considering their employees, the two decided that everyone should earn a living wage and the highest paid positions could not drastically exceed the lowest paid position. In a time when the average pay ratio between the lowest and highest paid positions was 1:40, they managed to obtain a 1:5 pay ratio. 

They began getting their fresh ingredients directly from farmers, ensuring fair wages, ranging from New England dairy farmers to the blueberry harvest of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine, to sustainable Brazil nut harvesters in the Amazon Rainforest. The company also took a serious look at their environmental footprint and started investing in renewable energy and creating as little pollution as possible in the production cycle. More recently, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation provides grants to aspiring business owners and community leaders who want to make a positive impact in their area. 

Not only did Cohen and Greenfield prove themselves wrong about whether a company could significantly promote the common good, but they discovered that business and society are so interconnected that as they helped others they were also helping themselves. They have since stood by their philosophy that businesses should positively affect their communities and be open to being affected by them. As Ben Cohen concluded at the Clinton School, “there are limitless ice cream flavors and limitless opportunities to use business as a force for social good.”

Content contributed by Aaron Harris, ARKSourceLink. ARKSourceLink is a proud affiliate of U.S.SourceLink, America’s largest resource network for entrepreneurs.