“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” proclaims Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of one of the most popular brands of ice cream in the U.S. Indeed, the success of Ben & Jerry’s since its launch almost thirty years ago seems to support his claim. From the $5 correspondence course in ice cream making Greenfield and his partner Ben Cohen took from the Pennsylvania State University in 1978, to being named “U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year” by President Reagan in 1988, the childhood friends not only achieved tremendous success, but they did so on their own terms.
Born on March 18, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York, Ben Cohen remembers being fascinated with ice cream from a young age, when his father used to regularly eat entire half-gallons directly from the carton using a large soup spoon after dinner. The curious young Cohen would take to creating his own flavours of ice cream by combining it with various cookies and candies. In fact, Cohen’s first job was working as an ice cream truck driver in his senior year of high school.
Cohen attended Calhoun High School in Merrick, New York, which is where he met his future business partner Jerry Greenfield. Born just four days before Cohen on March 14, 1951, also in Brooklyn, New York, Greenfield met Cohen during a gym class together in 1963. The two self-proclaimed wild boys became fast friends, even double-dating in Cohen’s convertible.
Greenfield graduated from Calhoun with a National Merit Scholarship and enrolled in a pre-med program at Oberlin College in Ohio, while Cohen enrolled in Colgate University. Cohen would not find much success at school, dropping out a year and a half later only to return to his job as an ice cream truck driver. From there, Cohen would enroll in Skidmore College to study pottery and jewelry making, and later in the University Without Walls. To pay his way through school, he worked as a cashier for McDonald’s and as a night mopper at a local store, among other part-time jobs. Disenchanted, Cohen eventually dropped out of the University Without Walls and moved to New York City to continue studying pottery, as well as art therapy at NYU. To support himself, he again took on various part-time jobs, including pediatric emergency room clerk and taxi cab driver.
Meanwhile, Greenfield was enjoying such courses as “Carnival Techniques” – where he learned to fire-swallow – at Oberlin. It was there that Greenfield also learned the sledgehammer-and-brick trick that would later become a regular feature of Ben & Jerry’s special events. After graduation, Greenfield unsuccessfully applied to medical school, and finally settled on working as a lab technician in New York, where he shared an apartment with Cohen. After a year of performing experiments on beef hearts, Greenfield again applied to medical, only to be rejected again.
Both Greenfield and Cohen were somewhat disappointed with where their lives had taken them to that point. Together, they began to think seriously about how to turn things around.