Jeff Furman met Ben Cohen at Highland Community, an innovative school for twenty-five emotionally troubled teenagers near the isolated mountain town of Paradox, New York. Jeff did administrative work, and Ben taught pottery. Naomi Tannen, the school’s founder and director, was a powerful influence on both of them. Jeff says that they were Naomi’s employees, not her students, but it could have gone either way. “She had a dream, and she pursued it relentlessly,” said Jeff. “She was also tolerant of eccentric people, as long as they were pointed in the right direction. I think Ben and I both learned a lot from her example.”
Jeff was raised in a Jewish family, and so was Ben; Jeff grew up in Queens, and Ben grew up on Long Island, less than twenty miles away; they both had been cab drivers; they both liked to laugh and do silly things; et cetera, et cetera. Hilarity ensued. Ben soon introduced Jeff to Jerry Greenfield, who had been Ben’s best friend since they struggled through the seventh grade together. Jerry was cut from the same cloth. The three men shared ideals that were formed in the 1960s and tempered by Vietnam and Watergate. They were smart and creative but ambivalent toward government, suspicious of big business, painfully aware of injustice, and looking for better ways to live.
The business Ben, Jerry, and Jeff built sprang from these values. Selling ice cream wasn’t their real purpose. If it didn’t come from the heart, they weren’t interested. As the years went by and the business got bigger, they kept pushing for ways to make things more interesting, more political, and more fun. They went farther than they ever thought they would. In a 1985 profile in The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin wrote that Ben represented “one of the people who carried the style of the sixties into consumer businesses aimed at their contemporaries, and whose response to success is to express not gratitude for living in a land of opportunity but astonishment at a world so weird that people like themselves are considered respectable businessmen.”
For the first five years of their ice cream business, Ben and Jerry found themselves working a lot of eighty-hour weeks, a lifestyle neither of them enjoyed. The money was not that great, either. They briefly decided to sell the business in 1982, when it might have been worth $500,000, and they asked Jeff to help with the legal and financial questions. Jerry moved away from Vermont then, but Ben changed his mind and decided not to sell. (Jeff persuaded Jerry to hold on to 10 percent of the company’s stock and stay on as a consultant; Jerry returned to the board of directors in 1990 and stayed until the company was sold in 2000). And then the broker that Ben & Jerry’s had hired to sell the business sued for breach of contract and won $100,000.
The moment the judgment was announced, Jeff ran down the street from the courtroom to Merchants Bank in Burlington, Vermont. Ben and Jerry followed close behind, with the county sheriff literally on their heels. The guys persuaded the banker, a friend of theirs, to let them withdraw the entire contents of the company’s accounts and give it to them in cash. Then Jeff flew home to New York, where the court couldn’t get at the money, with $90,000 on his lap in a paper bag. When he got home, he dumped the money on the bed, turned to his girlfriend, Sara, and said, “Look what I found!” (Maybe he was trying to impress her; in any event, she later married him.) Jeff kept the money in a safe-deposit box until the lawsuit was settled, and then sent it back to Vermont. Ben and Jerry never doubted that he would.