'Easier to talk about hard issues with ice cream' says Jerry of Ben & Jerry's

Mr Jerry Greenfield is in Singapore for the first time for the launch of the Join Our Core competition in Asia. The competition, organised by the ice cream company and social enterprise support group Ashoka, is a launchpad for social entrepreneurs. -
Mr Jerry Greenfield is in Singapore for the first time for the launch of the Join Our Core competition in Asia. The competition, organised by the ice cream company and social enterprise support group Ashoka, is a launchpad for social entrepreneurs. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Mr Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of ice cream company Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings, admits that he can eat two pints of ice cream at a go.

"I'm hesitant to talk about this. We don't want to talk about it because it's not good for you, right? We recommend strongly that people eat ice cream in moderation," he adds hastily in an interview with The Straits Times on Monday. "But yes, I could eat ice cream every day."

Social responsibility is never far from his mind. He has been more active as president of non-profit charity Ben & Jerry's Foundation since selling the ice cream company to Unilever 14 years ago.

He is in Singapore for the first time for the launch of the Join Our Core competition in Asia. The competition, organised by the ice cream company and social enterprise support group Ashoka, is a launchpad for social entrepreneurs. The best socially conscious business model and leader from each country will win €10,000 (S$16,159), have its business logo linked to a Ben & Jerry's flavour next year and bag a trip to Ben & Jerry's headquarters in Vermont.

This initiative is held in conjunction with Ben & Jerry's latest range of Core ice-cream flavours that include Hazed & Confused, chocolate and hazelnut ice creams with fudge chips and a hazelnut fudge core.

On having ice cream linked with the company's initiatives, Mr Greenfield says: "Having ice cream makes it easier to talk about hard issues. It brings a smile to everyone's face and opens your heart."

Yet the ice cream brand, founded in Vermont in 1978, is no stranger to controversy. In 2000, when Mr Greenfield and co-founder Ben Cohen sold the company to conglomerate Unilever, they were slammed for selling out.

They have also been criticised for getting involved in politics through their ice cream. The ice cream flavour "Hubby Hubby" was launched in 2009 for Vermont's law to legalise gay marriage.

But Mr Greenfield is not concerned about how taking a political stand will affect the ice cream business. "We're never going to get 100 per cent of the market share. These are not for financial self-interest nor are they just cute marketing campaigns. We connect better with our customers. It is for the greater good," he says.

Currently, he and Mr Cohen do not have specific roles in the ice cream company. Under their "unique agreement", he adds, the brand is considered "semi-autonomous".

Unilever handles the operations and finances, and there is an independent board of directors who helm the social mission. Mr Greenfield says: "Over the 14 years, it hasn't always been that smooth with everybody agreeing on everything and who gets to make what decision."

But being a co-founder has its privileges. He adds: "I can pick and choose what I want to do and not everyone has that opportunity. We're the co-founders, we're special!"

Besides running the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, he takes on public speaking engagements for business groups and universities. Mr Cohen, on the other hand, spends most of his time running Stamp Stampede, a campaign to get stamp messages on American currency to stop political bribery.

Mr Greenfield and Mr Cohen, who have been friends since they were 13, started Ben & Jerry's as a scoop shop in a gas station. Now, it has four factories and churns out 250,000 gallons of ice cream in a week.

But Asia is still considered a new market for the brand - it is only available in Japan and Singapore, where outlets are located at VivoCity and Dempsey, with more expected to open next year. To cater to the health-conscious, Mr Greenfield says the company may introduce its yogurt line - already available in the US and Europe - in Singapore.

In his time here, he has visited a FairPrice supermarket to suss out the local ice cream flavours.

He says: "I do eat other ice creams other than Ben & Jerry's. So far, we bought durian, yam, coconut, and Milo. I would like to go to a local ice cream shop to try the local flavours.

"I love local products, but having said that, I'll eat my chocolate fudge brownie."