Before he accepted the job as CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, the iconic maker of high-end ice cream, Jostein Solheim asked the company’s parent Unilever if he could “re-radicalize” the already left-leaning company. Unilever said he could — and he did. Ben & Jerry’s supports the Black Lives Matter movement, holds internal workshops on structural racism, and joined the COP21 climate conference.
Boosting progressive causes isn’t simply an add-on, Solheim told a group of Stanford Graduate School of Business students recently: “What inspires me … is what social impact can we create with this business.”
While many businesses shy away from taking a stance on social or political issues because of possible customer backlash, Solheim says that’s not a worry. “There are a lot of people who don’t like what we do, and that’s OK. We’re comfortable taking a stand and having others disagree.”
Disagreements or not, Ben & Jerry’s is selling plenty of ice cream. Last year, the Vermont-based company reported sales of $465.4 million, a market share of about 9%, making it the third most popular ice cream brand in the U.S. To stay on top, the company evaluates 200 to 300 flavors on a regular basis, Solheim says.
Solheim shared insights into managing a socially focused corporation at a session of Stanford GSB’s Global Speaker Series on Feb. 17.
Social Media Is Key
There’s more on Ben & Jerry’s Facebook page than tempting photos of ice cream with captions like “best flavors after midnight.” On a recent afternoon, the page featured a post opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline and an item headlined “Why Abe Lincoln would have hated private prisons,” both reactions to moves by the Trump administration.
“Instead of having to speak to each individual in a scoop shop, we can reach millions of people every day through social media,” says Solheim. “When you see a tweet from @BenandJerrys, it’s not from an agency.”
Social Engagement Takes Preparation
Deciding to engage with Black Lives Matter was a difficult decision, Solheim says. Not because he and his colleagues doubted the value of the movement, but because they were not sure that a largely white company in an overwhelmingly white state could play a role. But a conversation with civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis convinced him that they could, Solheim says.
“We spent 18 months of going deep into it, training our staff, and preparing and understanding and working with a broad set of partners in a very humble way,” he says.
Values Are Values
Conventional business wisdom holds that companies playing in international markets must be careful to work within local norms and customs. But Solheim sees it differently, at least when it comes to a values-driven company like Ben & Jerry’s. “The first thing that I get a lot when we come to a new community is that they want to tell me what they [believe in],” he says.
The company does, of course, work to understand those issues, but core values come first. “We can’t say that, ‘Oh, we’ve been fighting for same-sex marriage, but in Australia nobody cares.’ Well, we care. It’s not a popularity contest,” Solheim says.
Do What You Believe In
Solheim says there’s no one path or game plan for the student who hopes to run a socially focused company. “Do things that you passionately believe in and then things will take care of themselves,” he advises. “If you can put yourself in the shoes [of people who are struggling], if you can really understand the world from their perspective, you will be able to address a lot of those issues,” Solheim says.
Become a B Corp
Public-benefit corporations, or B Corps, define themselves as companies whose goal is a public benefit. To become one, corporations are evaluated by the nonprofit B Lab, which assigns metrics to the work the company does. Ongoing B Lab evaluations allow Ben & Jerry’s to evaluate the effectiveness of its campaigns, says Solheim. “The B Lab assessment is another one of those wonderfully comprehensive ways of assessing and ensuring we haven’t missed anything,” he says.
Chase Rights Abuses from Your Supply Chain
The way to ensure that a socially minded company’s supply chain is free of human rights abuses is to rely on the workforce, Solheim says. The only way that can work is to create an environment in which workers can report issues without fear of reprisals. “There is no other way of addressing it,” he says.