Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sustainability in the 21st Century – Ben & Jerry

This is first of a series detailing my experiences at the NC CEO Forum, where corporate leaders across the state discussed the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) and ways to promote social responsibility, community involvement and green efforts. A release about the contest can be found here.

WFU Business School Headshots 8-20-09 I promised a detailed field report of the NC CEO Forum, where I was recognized Tuesday as the event’s CEO of Tomorrow. I was obviously excited and prepared to present my winning question live to the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, but I discovered that the experience would be about much more than simply meeting the iconic ice cream entrepreneurs.

The key topic was sustainability and social responsibility, with panelists and speakers outlining perspectives and strategies for the triple bottom line – a concept where corporations focus efforts on people, planet and profit. Views were varied and vast, differentiating by company size and industry.

Jerry Greenfield, one half of the ice cream duo, took the lead in discussing their view of responsible corporate leadership. After musing about their transformation from 1960s hippies to legitimate businessmen, Greenfield acknowledged that business "is the most powerful force in society today.” But rather than conform to business as usual, the men decided to search out ways that business and community involvement could co-exist.

“We’re all interconnected. As we help others we also help ourselves," Greenfield said as attendees munched on complimentary servings of the company's famed ice cream. (In fact, they brought so many samples that we had ice cream available the entire day!)

One solution: Buying brownies from Greyston Bakery, a New York company that hires people who are down on their luck. (He said Ben & Jerry’s bought about $2 million in brownies from the bakery last year for its ice cream and other products.)

Cohen spent much of his time behind the podium pushing the U.S. government to do more for its citizens and the world. He wants to see the government cut back military and defense spending to fund education, veterans’ benefits and world hunger initiatives. Using OREOs to make his point, he showed that it would only take a haircut from the Pentagon budget to significantly fund other programs. Just last month, he blogged on the Huffington Post about his love for the cream-centered cookie.

I asked Ben and Jerry to discuss how they prioritize and select projects, and how they communicate their decisions to employees, investors, and customers. Greenfield stepped in, pointing out that engagement and involvement are critical to the process, noting that employees were instrumental in getting the company plugged into working with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). The company is also moving toward buying more Fair Trade ingredients for its various products.

The biggest thrill came after the presentation, when I was allowed to meet the ice cream moguls back stage. They came across as genuine, with Greenfield taking the lead asking me about the curriculum at the Wake Forest Schools of Business. He took a great interest in what type of MBAs were being churned out business schools, emphasizing his hope that corporate responsibility and social awareness were being introduced to courses. I assured him that Dean Steve Reinemund had a keen interest in bringing more ethics training into the program, which seemed to please both men.

Then Greenfield grabbed me by the shoulder and told the photographer we needed a group shot. Cohen joined in and the guys hammed it up while several shots were snapped. They were courteous enough to personalize a forum program for my 8-year-old, who had been routing for me during the entire CEOs of Tomorrow campaign.

They had a lighter message for the next generation. “Hope you’re getting lots of dessert.”


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