Jerry Greenfield, OC ’73, left Oberlin a “bushy-haired Biology major” who couldn’t quite get into medical school and returned this past Friday, Feb. 8 as the co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s — arguably the best-known ice cream brand in the country. In his keynote speech “Liberal Arts, Social Responsibility, and Ice Cream,” Greenfield shared his memories of a more radical Oberlin, the woes of trying to sell ice cream during a Vermont winter and his firm belief that businesses do not have to choose between profit and social concerns. The Review caught up with Greenfield after his talk.
Why is entrepreneurship important to Oberlin?
I think it’s important to give students the understanding that it’s okay to undertake a venture you may not feel you’re prepared for. In my experience, if you wait until you’re ready for something, you’ll never really do it.
Entrepreneurs are people that don’t do well with structure, people that have conflicts with authority. You know, Ben [Cohen] is the real entrepreneur. He always liked to mix things that normally don’t go together, like candy bars and ice cream, or social missions and business.
In your lecture you mentioned Oberlin’s attempt to become the “Harvard of the Midwest.” Do you think Oberlin students have changed since you attended here?
Well, I hung out in the library and Wilder today for a while, and what struck me is that it seems like the same gene pool as when I went here. I really like that. The kids here and the friendship I made here were really extraordinary.
What was your most powerful Oberlin memory?
When the Kent State shootings happened in May of 1970, Oberlin students went on strike and shut down the school. It was amazing to me that the administration agreed and went along with it. We all knew it was something more important than going to class.
Did you ever imagine that your ice cream would be sold at the Oberlin DeCafé?
I didn’t know that it was! That’s great. I’m very happy to be associated with the College. I have great feelings about the place.
Which college can take credit for the success of the company?
The ice cream correspondence course came from Penn State, but the values came from Oberlin. The company is a combination of those two things.
Ben and Jerry’s was bought out in 2000 by the international conglomerate Unilever. Do you think ethical business is still possible under the control of a huge corporation?
Well, the owner has ultimate say over what happens. It’s like having to answer to your parents. But they’re pretty lenient, so we can continue most of our social programs. But it’s certainly different being owned by somebody else. We like to think we’re still in control, but we have no real power or authority… just like President Krislov. We operate at the pleasure of our owners; he operates at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees.
But, yes, ethical business is still possible. You just have to do things differently. Normal businesses think only about profit. We ask people to think about something else — social and environmental change. The work is harder, but it’s more fulfilling. People in the company connect on the basis of shared values.
You knew this question was coming: What’s your favorite flavor?
Heath Bar Crunch, the gold standard of ice cream.