Cohen, Ben

views updated

Ben Cohen

Born: 1951
Brooklyn, New York
Cofounder, Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.

That is quite a condemnation from someone who himself is a successful businessman. But it pretty much sums up the philosophy behind Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., a super premium ice cream company founded in 1978 by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. Since the start of their business, Cohen and Greenfield have made money even though they give away 7.5 percent of company profits to social and environmental groups.

"I believe that businesses have a responsibility to give back to the community. I believe in the power of business for social change. Business is the most powerful force in society. It can be used to build or destroy society and in general, business has destroyed society."

Early Ice Cream Days

Ben Cohen was born in 1951 in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up and went to school in Merrick on Long Island, New York. Cohen's first childhood memories include watching his father eat an entire half-gallon of ice cream at the dinner table, scooping directly from the carton with a soup spoon. He also remembers creating his own ice cream flavor combinations at home as a boy by mixing his favorite cookies and candies into his ice cream. In the seventh grade, Cohen met his future business partner and friend, Jerry Greenfield, in the school's gym class. Both boys hated gym, but loved ice cream.

Cohen's first professional contact with the ice cream business came during his senior year at Calhoun High School in Merrick, when he sold ice cream novelties to neighborhood kids from a musical truck. He was soon promoted to boxman, working in the manufacturing plant freezer, distributing ice cream products to other truck drivers. Cohen graduated from high school in 1969, and enrolled in Colgate University, a private four-year school in Hamilton, New York. Uninspired by college life, he dropped out during his sophomore year.

Knocking Around

After another stint driving an ice cream truck, Cohen enrolled in Skidmore College, a private liberal arts school in Saratoga Springs, New York. He took a lot of unusual classes at Skidmore that reflected his interests of pottery making and jewelry. Cohen ended up enrolling in Skidmore's University Without Walls program, which emphasized independent, nontraditional, and non-classroom education. During this time, he worked at various jobs: he was a cashier at McDonald's, a Pinkerton guard at the Saratoga Raceway in New York, and an assistant superintendent of an apartment building.

Cohen moved to New York City after he left Skidmore without graduating. In New York, he continued his pottery studies and supported himself through a variety of jobs, including delivering pottery wheels, working as a clerk in the emergency room on the night shift at Bellevue Hospital, and driving a taxi. Cohen took classes in experimental sound recording at the New School, and in art therapy classes at New York University. He also interned as a craft therapist at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and at the Grand Street Settlement House.

In 1974, Cohen moved to Paradox, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains, to teach crafts at a school for emotionally disturbed children. The school was on a 600-acre farm. During his three years teaching, he also served as school cook. It was there that Cohen began seriously experimenting with ice cream making.

The Ice Cream Biz

By 1977, Cohen had again hooked up with his buddy Greenfield and the two moved to Burlington, Vermont, where they decided to open an ice cream shop. A year later, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream Parlor was born. The shop quickly grew into Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., selling ice cream at its scoop shops and in pints through grocery stores.

Cohen and Greenfield sold Ben & Jerry's in 2000 to Unilever, a giant Dutch-British corporation. As of 2002, Cohen remained on the Ben & Jerry's corporate board of directors, a subsidiary of Unilever. Cohen and his wife, Cynthia, a psychologist, have a daughter, Aretha, and live in Jericho, Vermont.