Last week we had the unique opportunity to speak with Jeff Furman, Chairman of the Board at Ben & Jerry’s.
At first this title had me imagining a very important serious looking man, in a very important looking suit, coming in and being very serious about what it means to run a successful business like Ben & Jerry’s. But of course, Jeff Furman walked in quite casually and invitingly, wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a “war is terrorism button” and a ball cap that commemorated the Greensboro Four. He spoke to us not as a “big corporate CEO” type, but rather as just a regular guy who had stories to share and wanted to hear what we, as college students had to say to him. To say the very least, Jeff was a very cool guy.
Furman began with telling us his journey to Ben & Jerry’s, the missteps, the struggles, the risks and the chances that he took with Ben and Jerry. The three of them together decided that they we’re willing to take a chance in starting a business, none of which any of them knew how to run, but to take a chance in creating a different kind of business. From the beginning they believed in creating a company that would embody their way of life and commitment to making the world a better place. Once they started gaining traction and business was doing well, they realized that they didn’t want to be just “another ice cream shop”, but rather they wanted to create a business that would use their position and their power to set a standard and model for what corporations can do for our world.
They did this by making it a standard to pay their employees a living wage and by establishing pay ratios. They made a commitment to ensuring that their product is fair trade and have shown statements in support of GMO labeling, climate change awareness, LGBTQ rights, campaign finance reform and now an even stronger effort in racial justice.
Their most recent efforts have been in learning and developing an understanding for the racial inequalities our nation faces. They sent their workers (from the top all the way down) to conferences, to speak with NCAAP leaders, to go visit Greensboro to learn about the civil rights movement. They realized their position, quite frankly as “rich old white guys” coming in and trying to ‘fix’ a problem that they had not personally experienced first hand. But they also realize that because of the power and the position that they hold as a well-respected company that it would be just a great of an injustice to sit by and do nothing to support the causes they believe in.
Of course, being a company they still have to make a profit. And it can be difficult to conduct a business under such a unique model. Paying a living wage and issuing “controversial” statements of belief can push off business and it can become costly. But even after Ben and Jerrys was acquired by Unilever they never gave up to fight for what it is that they belive in. If they were going to operate it was going to be under their terms and they were going to produce a product that really stood for what they believed in. And it goes much further than just coming up with coy Ice Cream flavors and having a so-called “big bad business”. It was about developing a path and a model that proved that not all businesses had to operate in the ‘traditional’ sense. You could have a business that believed in social issues and really practiced their word. And it’s about being willing to fight for it. It’s still rare for larger corporations to follow this model, but more and more you do see smaller business coming up that have taken their model with a socially conscious perspective.
Jeff spoke to us about how it’s on us, the younger generation to continue the work of our predecessors. This battle is never ending in a way, but if we continue to work, fight, take risks, and really follow our passions, then you can never go wrong. And it doesn’t matter what kind of work you go into, if the values you hold dear always come first. Any type of work, corporate business included, can be an example of creating positive change.
I can only hope that in the future successful business won’t just be defined by the profit they make, the amount of sales, or efficient turn around they have, but rather by their efforts for social justice and non discriminatory practices. That what if we had a world where our corporations can be held accountable for their actions and in reverse they (with the power they command) be able to hold our people, standards of living, and even our government accountable to being socially aware, progressive, and environmentally conscious. Think about the possibilities that could happen if suddenly Wal-Mart said “we need to pay everyone a living wage and we won’t sell products from companies that don’t do the same”. Of course it much more difficult and multi layered than that, but the point of the matter is Ben&Jerry’s is definitely not just another ice cream shop, they represent a future and an ideal of what American business can be and should.