Jerry Greenfield Biography

Philanthropist (1951–)
Jerry Greenfield is the co-founder of the company that makes Ben & Jerry's ice cream.


Jerry Greenfield was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 14, 1951, at the same hospital where Ben Cohen would be born four days later. The pair opened the first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in Burlington, Vermont, 27 years later. It was a hit, and within five years franchises sprang up. In 2000, the pair sold their ice cream business for $325 million, but Greenfield remains active in the company.

Early Life

Jerry Greenfield was born in a Brooklyn hospital on March 14, 1951, four days before future business partner Ben Cohen was born there. After both families moved to Merrick, Long Island, Greenfield attended Smith Street Elementary and Merrick Avenue Junior High School, where he met Cohen. They attended Calhoun High School together, and upon graduation, Greenfield went to Oberlin College.

After graduating from Oberlin and applying twice to medical school with no luck, Greenfield moved to North Carolina with his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Skarie. In 1976, he moved in with Cohen in Saratoga Springs, New York, where they decided to pursue their dream of starting a food-related business together. Having had odd jobs in the ice-cream industry previously, they decided to open an ice cream business. They split the $5 fee for a Penn State correspondence course in ice cream making, and set up their first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor in a refurbished gas station in Burlington, Vermont, in the spring of 1978.

Commercial Success

Their product was an immediate hit, and the duo began selling the ice cream out of Greenfield’s car as well. In the first five years, they also began opening Ben & Jerry’s franchises in the surrounding states. Because of their product’s popularity, during this time they had to fight (and eventually win) a battle with Pillsbury, the parent company of Häagen-Dazs, when Pillsbury tried to limit Ben & Jerry’s distribution, fearing growing competition from the young company. With their success gaining momentum, by 1986 they were building a manufacturing plant in Waterbury, going public and donating 7.5 percent of the company’s earnings to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, a nonprofit they formed to benefit various causes. The next year, Greenfield married Elizabeth, and their son, Tyrone, was born in 1988.

Throughout the 1990s, Greenfield and Cohen built both their ice cream empire and their reputations as humanitarians. In 1993 they received the James Beard Humanitarians of the Year Award and in 1997 the Peace Museum’s Community Peacemakers of the Year Award. And, riding on the wave of success behind such unconventionally named ice cream flavors as Chocolate Therapy, Cherry Garcia and From Russia with Buzz, Ben & Jerry’s was reaching annual sales of nearly $250 million by the turn of the century.

In April 2000, Greenfield and Cohen sold the company to Unilever for over $325 million. The sale agreement had a provision through which Greenfield and Cohen could maintain Ben & Jerry’s existing philanthropic apparatus and brand integrity, an unusual item to be included in a deal of this magnitude. Beyond his continuing work with Ben & Jerry’s, Greenfield is involved with the Institute for Sustainable Communities (with a seat on the board), Businesses for Social Responsibility and TrueMajority.

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