In this video, Jeff Furman explains his relationship to Ben & Jerry’s, and why working for the company’s board of directors is a constant struggle. An edited transcript follows.
What is your relationship with Ben & Jerry’s?
Ben and Jerry are old friends, and I have been with the company since it started. I helped them write their first business plan, back in the late 1970s. We borrowed a business plan that had been written by a pizza parlor. Wherever that plan said “slice,” we would cross out the word and wrote “cone,” and when it said “oven,” we would write “freezer.” We used that plan to get our first loan, and we were off and running. I joined the board of directors in 1982 and have been on it ever since. In 2010, I became the board’s chair.
You thought it was important to put the word “struggle” in the title of the book. Why?
The company’s mission emerged gradually, but by the mid-1980s we were committed to staying on the cutting edge of corporate social responsibility. Ben, Jerry, and I came from an activist background, and we always tried to do things in a different way. But we became a big business and then we were bought by Unilever. Continuing in that different way while also being part of a big business is a constant struggle.
It’s more than just the struggle to balance a slate of good works against the need to make a profit. It’s a struggle to keep an activist spirit at the heart of the company, so that the spirit drives the company. We talk about having a three part mission – an economic mission to pay our employees and shareholders decently, a product mission to make the world’s best ice cream, and a social mission to minimize our environmental impact, promote sustainability, attack economic injustice, and so on. The three parts are supposed to be equal, but for some of us, including me, the social mission is the first among equals.
Like all struggles, it has its ups and downs, and that’s one reason I wanted to get this book out. I wanted to show people that it’s OK to not reach an end point, and that the struggle for social justice will always go on. It will never be over.
But you can have fun while you’re struggling. After all, you’re selling ice cream, not plastic shower curtain rings.
I suppose it wouldn’t be as much fun to talk to a group of people and then at the end of the talk, instead of giving them all free ice cream in their favorite flavors, to offer them shower curtain rings in their favorite colors. I guess you’re right.