Ben Cohen Biography

Activist (1951–)
Ben Cohen is the co-founder of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s.


Ben Cohen and childhood friend Jerry Greenfield opened Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978, and over the years the pair turned Ben & Jerry’s into a worldwide phenomenon, selling the company for $325 million in 2000.

Early Life

Ben Cohen was born on March 18, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York, at the same hospital where his future business partner, Jerry Greenfield, was born just four days earlier. The two grew up less than two miles apart, but they did not meet until their seventh-grade gym class.

After high school, in 1969, Cohen began his brief college career at Colgate University. The summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college, he served ice cream out of a Pied Piper truck, and after the second semester of his sophomore year, he dropped out and moved to Long Island. From 1971 to 1974, Cohen enrolled in the University Without Walls at Skidmore College, where he took courses in jewelry making and pottery. He worked menial jobs until 1977, when he moved to Saratoga Springs, New York, where he planned to go into business with Greenfield.

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream

Once they decided on opening an ice cream business, they split the cost of a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream making from Pennsylvania State University. They then moved to Burlington, Vermont, a lively college town, and renovated an old gas station that would become their ice cream shop. With a $12,000 investment, they opened the ice cream parlor on May 5, 1978. The store found immediate success, and they began selling pints out of Cohen's Volkswagen to other retailers in the area. Within five years, franchises began popping up in neighboring states.

By 1984, Ben & Jerry's was so popular that the brand became a threat to larger players in the industry, and Häagen-Dazs tried to limit distribution of their ice cream in Boston. Ben & Jerry's filed suit against Häagen-Dazs' parent company, Pillsbury, and the famous "What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?" campaign began. That year, Ben & Jerry's had sales exceeding $4 million, and in 1985, sales were greater than $9 million, powered by such flavors as New York Super Fudge Chunk and Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.

The year 1985 also saw the founding of the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, which funds community-oriented projects. The foundation receives 7.5 percent of the company's annual pretax profits and supports such causes as the National Grassroots Grant Program and the Vermont Capacity Building Grant Program.

Social Mission and Activism

In 2000, Cohen and Greenfield sold Ben & Jerry's to British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever for $325 million. Like everything else Cohen and his company did, the sale was unique in that it contained provisions to allow Ben & Jerry's to maintain its existing social mission and brand identity.

A tireless activist, Cohen has put his wealth to use in founding such groups as TrueMajority and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, both of which are active in advancing various social and political causes.

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