July 1, 2013 Features

Convention A La Mode

Ben and Jerry are coming to convention and have lots to serve up. What's topping their list?

A real treat opens the 2013 ASHA Convention in November—Ben and Jerry. Yes, those guys, the intrepid inventors of that wacky-flavored ice cream, the first premium brand carried into outer space. An undeniable American success story, the homemade Vermont team of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are practitioners extraordinaire of "caring capitalism," working diligently through their company, philanthropic foundation and on their own to give voice to those who aren't always heard.

Ice cream and communication? An ASHA angle? More on that later, I promise. It'll happen--be cool. 

I caught up with Jerry Greenfield recently, just a few weeks after the 35th anniversary of the founding of Ben and Jerry's, which first took root in an abandoned gas station in Burlington, Vt. After great and conscientious deliberation, the Leader staff asked me to speak to Jerry for two important reasons.

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First, we're fellow New Englanders; only bold New Hampshire separates us. After a most audacious trek up north from New York 35 years ago, Jerry's earned his keep as an engaged citizen of Vermont; snow and spruce gum flow through his veins as much as they do through mine. However, with two centuries of Maine-spawned Dunhams at my back, I proudly claim an inside edge that'll be key to this interview, as we New Englanders can be remarkably taciturn before getting to know you. Think of us as a bit like lobstuhs—err, lobsters. We're a little hardened on the outside, but once you spend some quality time working your way past that shell—wading through all those pause-heavy ay-uhs, silent stares and muttered inhales—heck, we're thoroughly enjoyable. It'll take patience and some might right skillful maneuvering along a wicked, rocky road, but I'll get that Vermonter to open up, yessiree, mistuh. Advantage, Gary.

Secondly—shhh, don't tell anyone—I don't care for ice cream, a supreme indifference that guarantees journalistic integrity here. I can assure you, dear readers across ASHA-dom, that no type of ice cream temptations, no promises of exotic flavors like Cherry Garcia and its too-tasty ilk, will stand in the way of me getting the real scoop on these ice cream guys.

"Please, please! Call me Jerry."

Advantage, ice cream man. Jerry's delightfully inviting, chatty manner negates my Appalachian-sprung arsenal of shrewd conversation nutcrackers. He's more than willing to share, and it's gosh-darn unsettling. I keep forgetting that he was raised in one of those other states.

Because I'm just that type of endearing editor-in-chief, I try catching him off guard with an off-the-wall, truly stunning question. Which food lies at the opposite end of the taste-and-temperature spectrum from ice cream? What's the direct opposite, the culinary antimatter, to Ben and Jerry's ice cream? I suggest, based on an informal office poll, that hot collard greens, soaked in vinegar, just might fit the bill.

He's having none of my shenanigan twists and turns. In a most deliberate, analytical fashion, Jerry parses his ice cream—"sweet, fairly indulgent, big chunks"—and decides that its opposite has to be some type of Japanese fare that is "minimalist," "more vegetable-based," and "light on fat and sweets."

Oh well. Time to get to it, then.

So what's up with Ben and Jerry and convention? Lots. Three—that's a double dip plus an extra—topics of interest to ASHA members surfaced during our conversation. Jerry Greenfield's congenial reflections and infectious passion for making a difference flavored our back-and-forth most admirably.

They're about facilitating communication to help others.

Imagine ASHA's vision of "effective communication" as "a human right, accessible and achievable for all," played out beyond individuals onto a wider stage of social, political and economic equality. In many ways, that broad charge sums up the lifelong, socially engaged agenda of the dynamic dairy duo.

Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen's careers are sprinkled with activism—as individuals (such as giving out ice cream to Occupy Wall Street protesters) and by serving as company and philanthropic leaders. Their work over three decades especially supports grassroots organizations that promote sustainability; equal social, political and economic rights; and multicultural understanding and peace.

Check out a sampling of the 106 recipients of funding last year from the Grassroots Organizing for Social Change national grant program sponsored by the Ben and Jerry Foundation (of which Jerry has been president since 1985): the Amigos Multicultural Services Center (Eugene, Ore.), Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education (Los Angeles), Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center (Springdale), Clean Air Coalition of Western New York (Buffalo), Coalition on Homelessness (San Francisco), Anchorage Faith & Action–Congregations Together (Anchorage, Alaska), and the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (New York). Such funding helps give voice and visibility to constituents and causes, enhancing the possibilities for awareness and honest, tough dialogue that can impel change. Agree or disagree with Ben and Jerry's decision to support this or that cause or grassroots initiative, what is of enduring relevance to us is a cornerstone of their activism—that effective, open communication on a broader scale is indispensible for equal opportunity and justice.

With so much attempted and accomplished over the years, what stands out? Jerry didn't hesitate. Topping his list of activist endeavors is the legendary Peace Pop, a chocolate-covered ice cream bar on a stick first sold in the late 1980s, back during the Cold War. As he recalled, "We used the packaging to promote peace by encouraging the diversion of military funds to further international understanding." Specifically, the outside wrapper featured One Percent for Peace, a nonprofit group founded by Greenfield, Cohen and others to encourage the redirection of 1 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget to peace initiatives.

The staff didn't quite see eye-to-eye on this one. "There was a great deal of discussion within the company," Jerry admitted, "about the correctness of doing so, as it might upset our customers by being seen as too controversial and even unpatriotic." In the end, the co-founders' unswerving philosophy that businesses need to be socially responsible and work for progressive change in their communities won out. "We went ahead and did it anyway. Businesses always take positions politically, but they're usually driven by profit. Our business took a stand on a political issue that was not about making money."

The Peace Pop debuted, finding success more as an impulse buy in convenience stores than as a staple in supermarket freezers. The Cold War ended shortly thereafter. A coincidence? According to Jerry, his partner has always thought otherwise.

They're the team supreme.

Lifelong friends and business partners, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield exemplify teamwork, a key focus of ASHA's convention this year. Born four days before Ben, Jerry grew up in Merrick, Long Island. The two first met and became buddies in seventh grade gym class, a testosterone-laden arena of adolescent overachievement and budding bravado in which the two who were always last around the track shared absolute, splendiferous disinterest. Later, Ben surfed colleges but none gained traction; surviving pre-med at Oberlin College, Jerry returned to New York to work as a lab tech, and soon loathed the occupation.

Their careers swirling with aspiration more than direction, the friends plotted a move into the food business sector, specifically ice cream, which they both loved. Next big issue to tackle—where to make it happen? Which of their preferred towns lacked an ice cream parlor? Vermont beckoned. A $5 correspondence course on ice cream-making from Pennsylvania State University's Creamery in hand, in 1978 the duo opened the first Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor in downtown Burlington.

True teamwork emerged. Originally Jerry oversaw production, making the ice cream, which was mixed with the soon-to-be-widely recognizable tasty chunks of treats (the chunks partly inspired by Ben needing texture in ice cream due to his ageusia); Ben handled sales and flavor creation. After a rare argument about the size of the chunks (Ben wanted bigger, Jerry was sick of the darn things clogging the filler head, but Ben prevailed), their well-honed collaboration deepened as the company transitioned to packaging pints for national distribution and retail sale. Jerry and Ben discovered teamwork not only by running a business but also by developing together their distinctive, socially conscientious philosophy of business, what they call the bottom-line double dip of "profits and people."

The juxtaposition of profits and people raises an interesting question. How did that radical business philosophy affect teamwork within the company itself during the growing years? Is it possible to encourage feedback from employees and promote the voices and perspectives of team members while still being driven by a hierarchical decision-making framework necessary to remain competitive?

Yes—through savvy management hires. "Ben and I were hit-and-miss when it came to being effective managers," Jerry chuckled, a bit ruefully. "We never felt like bosses—especially Ben, who has real issues with authority—and we were not interested in making policies." He paused. "There's lots of wisdom in the staff at companies. People in the closest points in an operation have much to share about how best to do it, and certainly many in our company spoke their mind. Over the years, we were wise enough to bring in good managers who worked well with and listened to the staff."

Oh, and let's not forget that Ben and Jerry's staff receive free ice cream and health club memberships. That'll inspire teamwork. And confusion.

They're all about magic.

Jerry reportedly once proclaimed, "If it's not fun, why do it?" Indeed, playful irreverence, creativity and magic have sparked the long journey of this irrepressible team from the beginning. There's the Cowmobile, a modified mobile home Ben and Jerry drove across the country in 1986 to give away free scoops (it burnt to the ground outside Cleveland, immediately ascending to the rank of "the world's largest baked Alaska," according to Ben); its indomitable mobile spawn, Cowmobile 2; the infamous "What's the Dough Boy Afraid Of?" advertising campaign against Pillsbury; the annual Cone Day, celebrating the company's founding with a free scoop for all customers; and let's not forget the scratch-your-head but weirdly compelling "YO! I'm Your New CEO!" national contest in 1995 to hire a new CEO.

And of course we need to acknowledge that long, delicious list of cleverly phrased, original flavors ... Chubby Hubby, Bovinity Divinity, Economic Crunch, Cherry Garcia, Ethan Almond, and so on. (Ahem. It took great journalistic restraint and exceedingly profound professionalism not to propose to Jerry my own flavor creation—a California-inspired, granola- and avocado-based ice cream called Silly Cone Valley.)

There's real magic in a career of out-of-the-box, creative choices. Magic, shimmering and delightful, full of potency and possibility. It's woven throughout this year's ASHA convention, it's an abiding interest of ASHA President Patty Prelock, and it spiritedly adorns the prow of a much-lamented, long-lost ice cream flavor.

What a magnificently orchestrated segue to my final earnest question. On behalf of my fellow ex-hippies everywhere with their oh-so-special needs and desires, I just had to inquire: Any chance that the original Magic Brownies flavor will return soon? Please?

"Magic Brownies unfortunately didn't sell very well," Jerry replied, good-naturedly. "It doesn't matter what Ben and I liked; it all depended on what the customers wanted."

It didn't go down without a fight, though. Chuckling, Jerry remembered. "At one point, when the flavor's future was on the fence, we redoubled our efforts by putting extra magic into the brownies. I proposed adding a label that read ‘Now, With More Magic!'" [No, not that kind of magic!]

Those were the days. Sigh.

Gary Dunham, PhD, is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. gdunham@asha.org

cite as: Dunham, G. (2013, July 01). Convention A La Mode. The ASHA Leader.

What's Your Favorite?

Ben and Jerry get convention off to a right-proper roaring start when they speak on "Social Responsibility, Radical Business Philosophy and Free Ice Cream." Yes, you heard that right. After the openings session, y'all will be treated to a scoop of their ice cream. A tasty freebie.

Alas, we haven't decided on the flavor yet and need your help! Which current Ben and Jerry flavor would you like to sample after opening session? Send your recommendation to leader@asha.org with the subject heading "flavor." We're listening ...



  

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