Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield at Ben & Jerry’s 10th Anniversary Celebration Of Peace Day at The Box in 2009 in New York
Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the town of Merrick, on Long Island. Cohen met and befriended his future business partner Jerry Greenfield in 1963 during a seventh-grade gym class. In his senior year, Cohen found work as an ice cream vendor before attending Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.
Over the next decade, Cohen followed his interest in pottery and dropped out of college after his sophomore year. He also worked as a McDonald’s cashier, Pinkerton security guard, pottery wheel deliverer, mop boy at Jamesway and Friendly’s, assistant superintendent, ER clerk and cab driver, before taking up work as a crafts teacher at a private school for emotionally disturbed adolescents. While teaching at Highland Community School, Cohen began experimenting with making his own ice cream.
Jerry Gra field
Greenfield grew up on Long Island and attended Merrick Avenue Junior High School, where he met Ben Cohen in 1963. Greenfield and Cohen both attended Calhoun High School and remained friends until they both graduated and left Long Island to attend college. Greenfield chose to take a pre-med curriculum at Oberlin College. At Oberlin, Greenfield began working as an ice cream scooper in the school cafeteria.
After graduating in 1973, Greenfield failed to attend medical school. At this point, Greenfield decided to move back to New York, where he shared an apartment with Cohen and worked as a lab technician. In 1974, Greenfield was again rejected from medical school and decided to move to North Carolina with his future wife and continued to work as a lab technician.
Founding of Ben & Jerry’s
Greenfield lived with Cohen in Saratoga Springs, New York, in the summer of 1977. They decided to do business together in May 1978. The two men opened Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in Burlington, Vermont. They initially planned to start a bagel business, but found the cost of the equipment prohibitive and switched to ice cream instead.
They chose Burlington as the location because it was a prominent college town that did not have an ice cream parlor at the time. They took a five dollar correspondence course in ice cream making and opened their first store in a former gas station. Ben & Jerry’s opened in the summer of 1978.
Ben & Jerry’s signature ice cream style was developed to compensate for Cohen’s anosmia as he added increasingly larger chunks of ice to the ice cream to meet his need for texture in food. Ben & Jerry’s became popular in Burlington.
Unilever and social activism
Ben & Jerry’s was sold to Marmite and Dove soap maker Unilever in 2000 for $325 million. Reports show that Greenfield took $9.5 million while Cohen took $41 million.
Both Cohen and Greenfield are still paid to represent the brand, although neither has formal responsibilities.
In 2015, Greenfield said, “Oh yeah, I’m definitely an aging hippie. A lot of people think the hippies were irresponsible, but we really believed in all this stuff about peace and love and caring for each other; we still do. And we are still trying to make a difference.’
He added: “Ben & Jerry’s still has an anti-corporatist and anti-authoritarian view on all the big issues we care about, such as climate change and social values, and stays outspoken when it matters.”
Cohen used his newly acquired wealth and fame for a variety of social causes, most often through the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. The Foundation receives 7.5 percent of all pre-tax profits from Ben & Jerry’s and distributes funds to organizations such as the Anti Displacement Project.
He supported Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic Party presidential primaries in 2004. In 2008, he initially supported John Edwards, followed by Barack Obama. Cohen became a prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential primaries.
Cohen debuted a special ice cream flavor called “Bernie’s Yearning” on January 25, 2016 in support of Sanders. Ben & Jerry’s has issued a statement disclaiming any association with or support for the product.
On April 18, 2016, Cohen was arrested along with Greenfield during a Democracy Awakening protest in Washington, DC. On February 21, 2019, Cohen was named national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign.
In 2018, in protest against the Trump administration, the company changed one of its flavors to Pecan Resist ahead of the midterm elections. The company said Pecan Resist celebrated activists who oppose oppression, harmful environmental practices and injustice. As part of the campaign, Ben & Jerry’s said it was giving $25,000 each to four activist entities.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, in June 2020, the brand spoke out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following a wave of protests. It encouraged people to “address systemic and institutionalized racism” and said, “All lives matter. But all lives will only matter if black lives matter.’
A few weeks later, Ben & Jerry’s joined other global brands to take ads off Facebook as part of its “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, urging the social network to impose tougher measures on hate speech.
In August, the company faced a boycott in the UK and was criticized for ‘virtue signaling’ after it attacked Home Secretary Priti Patel over its treatment of migrants crossing the English Channel.
In September 2020, the brand launched a podcast about American white supremacy entitled Who We Are: a Chronicle of Racism in America.