By Jerry Greenfield, Co-Founder, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream
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Culture is a worldview that grows out of values. That means you need to know what your values are — it’s not something that just happens. What are your values around people, about the world around you? Decide what you want and then go about creating it.
When Ben Cohen and I founded Ben & Jerry’s, my thoughts about pretty much everything were strongly affected by the culture of the entire country. I’m a child of the ’60s, and what was going on in America at the time defined my values. Those values, in turn, helped define what our company became. Company culture has to be understood within the context of an organization, but the larger environment does come into play.
In the beginning, Ben & Jerry’s culture was somewhat organic; it was a tone that Ben and I created. We focused on modeling a value set. While I think culture is something the company did pretty well, it wasn’t entirely conscious or well-designed. It took a few years for us to realize that the company needed a more defined mission. We knew it went beyond economics. We wanted to think about what a company’s role might be in the larger community, and specifically, how our business could serve the common good.
For-profit businesses at the time tended to be self-serving, focused only on making money. The idea of a social mission was somewhat unique. We wanted to do good and give back. Of course, that’s a pretty broad directive and it needed refinement. In the early days, when we used to talk about Ben & Jerry’s being a values-led company, people would ask, “Well, whose values?” It was a fair question. You need to decide who you are. We had to look back at the issues we’d supported in the past — social and economic inequality, peace, social justice — and pull out the themes. We discovered that we stand for progressive social values: a sense of fairness, speaking up for people whose voices are not heard.
Strong Values, Strong Teams
Building a culture on strong values has implications for hiring. Hiring the right people can have tremendous positive impact, but it’s difficult to get right. We believe that our employees are motivated at work because their work is in line with their own personal motivations and beliefs.
When an employee’s personal values are out of alignment with the company’s values, that can create conflict. In our early years, we found ourselves asking: do you have to believe certain things in order to work here? The answer we came up with was “no.” You can’t screen for values. People get to believe what they believe. But when you’re at work, your mission is to advance the mission of the company. A person’s willingness to do that is just as important as their drive to make the company profitable, or to make the best ice cream in the world. We did find that over time, as the company’s culture and values became more defined, we began to attract more people that shared those values.
At Ben & Jerry’s, we tried to integrate social and environmental concerns into the day-to-day running of the company. Business management usually strives to streamline, to make things more manageable. What we were doing was adding complexity. We were asking our people to think about more, to look beyond the standard business questions of price and and quality and time of delivery. For those who shared our values, that was a really motivating ask. For people who didn’t share our values, we were just introducing a layer of complexity and asking them to do something that made their job harder. That’s why it continues to be so important, especially in management positions, to bring in people that share Ben & Jerry’s values.
Leadership really matters. It’s important that everyone’s involved, that there’s ownership at all levels, but people at the top have to set the right tone. At Ben & Jerry’s, the company thrives when there’s good leadership and doesn’t when there isn’t.
Making sure that our team shared our values was one thing when the company was privately held. When it was sold to Unilever, we inserted language into the acquisition that we hoped would maintain our values going forward. One of those key items was setting up an independent Board of Directors responsible for overseeing the three aspects of our mission: Product, Economic, and Social.
Even with that in place, our social mission languished for a period of time. We’ve seen some real ups and downs since the company was sold in 2000. I’m happy to say that over the last several years both the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s and the leadership at Unilever have been really set on progressing the social mission. We’ve publicly supported the Occupy Wall Street movement, Black Lives Matter — causes you don’t see a lot of corporations endorsing. I’m proud of that.
Integrity Comes With a Cost
Ben & Jerry’s has a history of making non-traditional moves. Ben brought that to the company. He’s pretty anti-authoritarian and unconventional, and he loves to innovate and try new things. But when you try to establish something unconventional, you’re going to run into problems. People don’t want to do new things. They don’t want to fail.
During the Cold War, Ben & Jerry’s was about to come out with a chocolate-covered ice cream bar on a stick. Ben wanted to call it a “Peace Pop” and use the packaging to talk about world peace. It would introduce the idea of devoting one percent of the U.S. military budget to a peace initiative — we’re far less likely to bomb each other if there’s open dialogue. This idea was incredibly controversial within the company. People worried we’d be boycotted, there would be negative press, we’d lose customers.
Ben pushed it through despite the concerns. Not everybody liked it and maybe we lost some customers. But by and large, even people that disagreed with us respected that we took a stand on an issue that was above our own self-interests. We demonstrated that we cared about the common good and it was ultimately the right decision for our business.
That choice really put us on a path where we were willing to take controversial positions. Ben always said, “You’re never going to get 100% market share, so it’s much better to have a relationship with your customers and your employees based on shared values.” We’re not just trying to sell a product. We’re working together to make the world a better place, to achieve a common objective.
It All Comes Down to Love
Taking a stand only works if the company truly believes in the cause. Some companies today have decided they need to stand for something because that’s what consumers want, but that’s completely backwards. Customers respond when the causes companies support are authentic, not a tool to achieve results. Consumers can tell the difference and it matters to them.
I admire companies like Patagonia that use their voice to talk about issues beyond their products and services. Ben & Jerry’s was about ice cream and then evolved into using ice cream for a broader purpose.
For many companies today, making a difference in the world is not a secondary objective — it’s primary. I have a lot of respect for these organizations. You have to be passionate to make a difference. You have to love what you do and be able to inspire that love in others, and that’s what defines a culture. Love is really where it’s at. In the beginning, at the end, in the middle. It’s hard to define, hard to instill, but that’s what it comes down to. It all comes down to love.
Long-time friends Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen opened Ben & Jerry’s Homemade ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978. The co-founders have been recognized by the Council on Economic Priorities and by the U.S. Small Business Administration for fostering their company’s commitment to social responsibility. They have also received the James Beard Humanitarians of the Year and the Peace Museum’s Community Peacemakers of the Year Awards. Today, Jerry promotes the company’s social and environmental initiatives and is President of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.