EntreFEST Day 1: Who’s afraid of Ben & Jerry’s?

Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s, gives the opening keynote at the 2019 EntreFEST conference/festival in Cedar Rapids. Photo contributed/Andrew Ravera, NewBoCo

The perception of competition is a funny thing. It can bring out the great innovations in companies, the leaps in service or quality or product — or, as Jerry Greenfield found out long ago, an impulsive desire to shut others out all together.

Greenfield, of course, is one-half of the ice cream icon Ben & Jerry’s. It turns out he likes EntreFEST, and Iowa in general, quite a bit — or at least enough to supply the entire 500-plus conference audience with free mini-cups of ice cream in four flavors. (Cookie Dough is the only important flavor in the universe, as everyone should know. Please hold the “media bias” emails.) Ben Cohen didn’t come along for the ride — Greenfield led the morning keynote on Thursday in Cedar Rapids — but Cohen featured quite prominently anyhow.

The short version of the Ben & Jerry’s story is that after years of two baby boomers dropping out of three college programs (Cohen) and facing two medical school rejections (Greenfield), the pair of middle school friends split a $5 correspondence course on homemade ice cream and decided to open shop — not in warm-weather college towns, which had a wealth of local competition, but in Burlington, Vt., which is just hours from the Canadian border, greatly hampering impulse ice cream purchases for a little over half the year.

As it happens, the two built a successful ice cream business out of an abandoned gas station with about $12,000 initially and began delivering ice cream to area restaurants and grocery stores. Eventually they connected with a distributor who could bring them into Boston for a time, a distributor who also partnered with the Brooklyn brand Haagen-Daz, although Cohen and Greenfield certainly didn’t seem to mind.

Haagen-Daz, which at the time had been recently purchased by Pillsbury, did mind, and told its distributors to choose a business relationship: big-guy Pillsbury or two-hippie-shop Ben & Jerry’s. What followed has been documented elsewhere, but suffice to say the small-business protest “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?” would have been a viral hashtag in the making, had social media existed in the 1980s. That two-hippie-shop won the court of public opinion, and became so successful nationally that in a few years Ben & Jerry’s went public (that is another story, but it started with public stock offered exclusively to the Vermont community), then was later acquired by Unilever.

In the middle of it all, Greenfield and Cohen began redirecting company focus from singularly profit-driven to a shared focus, on both positive community impact and sustainable business profits. The two now enjoy dream high-profile jobs at the company they started with no responsibility and no authority, as Greenfield said.

Greenfield tells the story to highlight a broader pattern over the history of Ben & Jerry’s.

“Perhaps the most powerful thing that a business has is its voice,” he told the crowd at Veritas Church. “Business is a respected member of the community. When businesses talk, other businesses listen, politicians listen, the public listens.”


What can’t AI do?

“God have mercy on the shepherdess and her master, for he was a lover of the fire./ The dog loved her, and when she saw me, she found nothing wrong with it.”

Poetry enthusiasts will have opinions on whether the verse is good or bad, but there’s no denying that it’s pretty good writing from an artificial intelligence program — especially as an original work. Brad Dwyer, founder of social media gaming company Hatchlings, demonstrated on Thursday how AI programming is leaping into previously human-only creative endeavors, including writing, painting, musical compositions and generating entirely new ideas.

“What is it not good at? The scary answer is that I was sure that it was never going to do those things five years ago, and now I have no idea what the answer to this question is,” Dwyer said. “It seems like wherever we think that boundary of this technology stopping is, we just fly past that.”

A new migration wave

The effects of an oversaturated population on the U.S. coasts are making waves — all the way to the Midwest within the next 20 years, said Zack Mannheimer, principal of community planning at McClure Engineering.

“If you’re a young person or an entrepreneur or a creative in any way, the last place you should be is a major city,” Mannheimer said.

He argued the second-wave cities — Austin, Denver, Minneapolis and Nashville — are hitting their own oversaturated population point.

“We’re in the rise of third cities today, and that’s places like Des Moines, Little Rock, Ark., Birmingham, Ala. … but we believe as things speed up by 2030, even those third-wave cities are going to be oversaturated,” he said.

Who’s left? That would be the rural communities of America — and it’s why Mannheimer argues those communities need to be planning for the housing, infrastructure and amenity offerings now for a higher population.

Seek the turquoise bikes

EntreFEST attendees in 2019 received an added bonus to get around town during the sessions Thursday and today: This week was the city’s launch of bike share VeoRide, an electric bike/app program. Around 50 bikes are available for users who download the VeoRide app, which will locate available bicycles, unlock the bike for a user for $1 and add 15 cents per minute of use. The city already has plans to expand the program, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reports: The bike share will grow to about 150 bikes in June.