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Interview: Why ice-cream guru Jerry Greenfield is impressed by Irish business

Jerry Greenfield – one half of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream empire – says sustainable businesses that give back to communities are important.

Jerry Greenfield, left, and Bennett Cohen, the founders of Ben and Jerry Homemade Inc.
Jerry Greenfield, left, and Bennett Cohen, the founders of Ben and Jerry Homemade Inc.
Image: (TOBY TALBOT/AP/PA Images)

JERRY GREENFIELD – one half of the Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream company – says it is important for businesses to have social responsibility and give back.

Greenfield launched the company’s ‘Join Our Core’ initiative, a European-wide search for future leaders in sustainable business, earlier this year. Three Irish entrants have impressed and are off to join 22 other European businesses in the semi-final.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie this week, Greenfield said ”Ben and I always believed giving back to the community was as important”. He added:

That’s why I am really excited about this competition, it is just so great because it is not just about business but it addresses social issues and that is something that is just so important to us as a business. The competition has 25 competitors and they all have some great ideas. Each and every one of them have created cool new models for businesses and are also doing something that will have a real impact and make a difference in communities.

Corporate responsibility is very important said Greenfield adding that it should be for all businesses. “We find that it is the right thing to do – if you are successful in business you have a responsibility to give back,” he said.

He said that he was extremely impressed with what the Irish had to offer.

The three Irish entrants who particularly caught his eye were Anne Bedos of Rothar, the bike initiative which refurbishes and sells unwanted bikes; John Egan of Archipelago, a community of young entrepreneurs; and Elaine Doyle of Biochar, the carbon negative product that assists crop yields while simultaneously taking care of waste. Archipelago and Biochar have gone through to the final.

Five ultimate winners will scoop a €10,000 cash prize, business mentoring from social entrepreneur support organisation Ashoka and the chance to see their name on tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in 2013.

The business model from Ireland that works with reclaiming old bicycles and doing something with them: That was one venture that jumped out at me because they take people in that have had some problems – like they have been in prison or long term unemployment. They have created jobs for people and that really is something. There is another one also that looks at doing something with food waste and creating needs for waste food – that is something really useful. All these are great sustainable business ideas that all aim to make an impact.
All the entries are just so creative – we would love to see more socially-minded start-ups making a difference and showing that it is important that businesses have values and in turn they can prosper even in tough economic times.

Having values in business is something Greenfield said is needed adding that it was great to be involved in the search “to find business models with those same values that still lead us today”.

Absolutely it is very important – business is the most powerful force and we really need to help and not just think of our own interests. What better way than to help others get into business and to start something new in their lives.

Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen began their ice-cream business in 1978 after Ben had been fired from a series of jobs while Jerry had failed for the second time to get into medical school. They did a course in ice-cream making, opened their very first ice-cream shop in a dilapidated gas station in Burlington, Vermont and the rest is history – or not so – as Greenfield explains that starting that any new business is a challenge.

Following their first store opening they closed after two months hanging a sign on the door saying “we’re closed to figure out whether we’re making any money”. According to Greenfield they learned a lot and by 1979 they were back in business. Greenfield said that it was important for new businesses to persevere even in these hard economic times.

I think first of all you have to do something that you are passionate about. You have to have a mission – a mission towards what you want to achieve. You will always run into difficulties when you are starting in any new business, that is why it is always good to start small. That way you are forced to learn all aspects of your business from the menial stuff all the way to the top.

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The recession Greenfield says is something that can push people into doing the things they have always wanted to do. ”I think even in these tough times there are opportunities to be found. Harsh economic times can often force people to be even more creative,” he said.

So how has Ben & Jerry’s achieved success? Apparently it could have been bagels rather than ice-cream for Ben and Jerry but the equipment was too expensive, so the world got Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream instead. Jerry said that they had “nothing in particular” in mind for their business product but “we always loved to eat – we knew that”. He said:

We had thought of bagels, that was where we thought we might go and we even looked at the machinery that would make the bagels but then we worked out that it was just too expensive so then we thought – ice-cream.

What makes their brand of ice-cream stand out amongst the others? Greenfield says: “I think our flavours really. We have worked hard to create something that can stand to us, we have lots of different kinds to suit all, big chunks of chocolate, fruit and nut really became our signature. I think being different is great and being different in business is just great too”.

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