When Ben and Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim made the decision last spring to launch Empower Mint, a new ice-cream flavor, in North Carolina, it was a political move. The company wanted to raise awareness about racially motivated voter suppression and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It donated 1.5% of sales of the new flavor to the local NAACP chapter to help register voters.
“We lost,” Solheim says of this initiative, but he is proud of the company’s efforts. He clarifies that the loss is not because of the results of the presidential elections, per se, but because as a nation we have made only a small dent in addressing the real problem of voter suppression in our democracy. It was widely reported that voting in African-American communities was lower than 2008 or 2012 numbers, as a result of the new voter ID laws and voting site closures in states across the country.
“I anchor everything in the big picture,” Solheim says, as a way of explaining this move and his leadership style in general. “We’re a social justice company that happens to sell ice cream. Not the other way around. Our whole motto is how we can positively impact society.” This is why Ben and Jerry’s decided to toss themselves into the middle of the “culture war” in the United States and Europe.
“I’m sort of extreme on vision, on change, on ambiguity of paradox.” He loves ice cream (and who doesn’t?), but that isn’t what motivates him. “To motivate myself to have an innovation program on ice cream, which I obviously have to do, and I do with great joy and pleasure, I have to roll to the greater point, which is how do we change society?”
He is constantly asking himself and his team these kind of societal questions. “How do we have impact on large-scale communities? What are the structural parameters that we can drive? What are the sustainable and self-evolving systems that we can drive?”
As a result of asking these questions, he decided with his team to focus Ben and Jerry’s on two big platforms that they summed up as “climate justice.” It was their way of expressing the big picture that issues like climate change and social justice are deeply intertwined. “There are racial dynamics in all of this that you have to acknowledge,” as Solheim points out.
It turns out the company’s fans, the people that buy Ben and Jerry’s, also care about social issues. “We make it easy way for them to have a voice. Make a contribution. Sign a petition, or go to a climate march—whatever the action that they’re ready for. It feels less threatening coming from us. It’s just like, “I was eating Ben and Jerry’s and looking at this social media feed. Before I knew it, I’d signed up because they had this really funny way they did it.” That’s our role in this. Of course, these people are loyal Ben and Jerry’s fans. They appreciate that we are engaged on the issues they care about.”
Solheim grew up in Norway, and has become very aware that he was “born into this privilege that goes beyond your wildest imagination. You just assume safety, you assume some prosperity. You get treated with respect pretty much wherever you go.”
At 13, he moved to California when his father went on a sabbatical. He was placed in an American Literature course, but after two days his teacher was shocked to learn he didn’t speak fluent English. The teacher was confused and said “‘but you’re white.’” And he replied, “Yeah, I am, but I don’t speak English.” They had enrolled him in American Literature because he was white instead of the ESL class he needed.
He was then placed in the proper ESL class with a group of Mexicans. “I just saw from their perspective how differently they were treated.” He was also moved by their kindness. “Their kindness toward me was extraordinary.” But as soon as the class was over he noticed, “They disappeared. They had this way of hiding out. To not draw attention to themselves. To not be pulled into conflict or bullying. It was a segregated world without looking like it from the outside.”
Until then, he had not been able to internalize the role of race in society; it was his “first lesson in segregation.” He was an outsider treated as an insider because he was white. Yet he was able to see how different it was for fellow immigrants with a different color skin.
He has learned over and over again in his career that “you have to constantly challenge yourself to own your perspective from a racial, religious, sexual orientation perspective and then consider how it would feel from the other side.”
He realized early in his career that “people at the top of the company actually don’t know that much more than the people at the bottom of the company.” The knowledge and understanding of many executives, he found, was hampered by their arrogance. “I used to get really irritated when people became arrogant as they rose through the ranks to become senior executives.” Being arrogant not only hurts relationships and undermines leadership but it makes you blind to the true dynamics in a situation.
Solheim now focuses 20% of his time on learning, challenging his assumptions, and keeping his ego in check. In a world that is constantly changing, he has built the processes and culture around him to ensure he is questioning old assumptions that are often no longer valid, if they ever were in the first place.
Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and authority on social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation. His book, The Purpose Economy, is now available as a paperback.