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April 29, 2009

Lessons from the Ice Cream Business

Catherine New
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This post contains an update.

Sugar Plum didn’t make it and neither did Fred and Ginger. But Chocolate Fudge Brownie is a bestseller.

Not every flavor makes it to your freezer; but if you’re Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, you keep trying. Indeed, making ice cream has been a metaphor for the way the company has become a leader in sustainable business.

“Figuring out how to have a socially conscious business was like creating a new flavor,” Jerry Greenfield told students in a presentation at the Feed Your Conscience event on April 22. “We had no idea to do it, but it didn’t prevent us from trying and failing, making improvements and trying again.”

Greenfield spoke with Julius Walls, Jr., President and CEO of Greyston Bakery, at the event, which was sponsored by the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, the Social Enterprise Program, the Social Enterprise Club, the Green Business Club and the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization. The presentations were followed with brownies a la mode.

Walls shared his experience connecting Greyston’s business model to a community mission and urged students to look beyond financial returns.

“It’s not about the dollar and making money,” he said. “It’s about people, planet and profits. You don’t have to give up one to serve another — business should serve humanity.”

Both leaders agreed that community outreach and ingredient sourcing have been key parts of their sustainability mission. In an audience Q&A, Greenfield responded to questions about the challenges of both becoming a public-owned company as well as a subsidiary of Unilever, which it has been since 2000.

“How do you maintain the mission in founder-driven entrepreneurial companies?” he asked. “The jury is still out. It’s very difficult.”

However, Greenfield said the strongest endorsement of the mission is in the bottom line.

“Our experience is that the more giving and caring we are, the more successful [the business] is,” he said.

UPDATE (5/6/09): Watch video from Feed Your Conscience ’09, now posted on Columbia Business School’s YouTube channel. -CN

Photo credit: Anna Berger