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Q&A: Ben & Jerry's Ben Cohen

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Next time you dive into a pint of your favorite Ben & Jerry’s all-natural ice cream, consider the good you’re doing. Each cool, creamy bite enables this unconventional food company to support sustainable programs like Caring Dairy (benefiting farmers, their cows and the environment), Climate Change College (to help resolve global warming issues) and Fair Trade initiatives that aid smaller farmers. You can meet Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen at Rosemont College (rosemont.edu), where he’ll speak on April 22 as part of the Presidential Lecture series.

MLT: You grew up with an ice-cream-loving father, and when you were a senior in high school, you drove an ice cream truck. Does it feel like you were destined to be the ice cream guy?
BC:
Never. I had no idea that being the ice cream guy would become my life’s work.

MLT: What does it take to get your own flavor—like Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream?
BC:
It’s not easy to be a flavor. You need to be a cultural icon, and you need to use your position for social benefit. That’s just for starters. Then you need to come up with a great flavor and a great name—and you have to have luck on your side.

MLT: You were serious about pottery during and after college. Are you still an avid potter?
BC:
I haven’t done that in a very long time. It turned out that no one wanted to buy my pottery. But that failure is why there’s a Ben & Jerry’s today.

MLT: What’s the biggest business lesson you’ve learned along the way?
BC:
Early on, I’d say: Sometimes you’ve got to take the bull by the horns. You need to act—push everything through; make the tough decisions. More recently, it’s that it is possible to work on behalf of social problems and turn a profit—something we were told [wasn’t feasible] by many other businesses over the years. It’s a myth. We’ve learned that a business can serve the community and make money at the same time.

MLT: What’s your take on going into business with friends?
BC:
Jerry and I were partners. It can be difficult being your friend’s boss. Our business relationship was successful because we had such a long foundation and because we had the same goals—but excelled and were interested in different areas.

MLT: What organizations are you most personally connected to?
BC:
I have a couple of my own, so they’re where I’m most involved: Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities and TrueMajority.org. Both promote improved socio-economic conditions and a more efficient government.

MLT: Who do you view as your biggest competitor?
BC:
Häagen-Dazs. It’s high quality, and the Vanilla Swiss Almond is pretty good.

MLT: How do you come up with names for new flavors?
BC:
Some of the best names are the ones suggested by our customers.

MLT: Have there been any flops?
BC:
Lemon Peppermint Carob Chip.

MLT: If you could have only five things in your refrigerator/freezer, what would make the final cut?
BC:
Watermelon, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, lemonade … I think I’d like a nice spread of sushi/sashimi, and a nice pot of coq au vin.

MLT: What are your favorite flavors?
BC:
Cherry Garcia and Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.
 

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