Jeff Furman ’68 made a career in ice cream—flavored with a drive for social justice

If you visit the Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street, among the vintage photographs and caricatures decorating the walls, you can find a picture of the restaurant’s 1969 softball team, featuring Jeff Furman ’68 and several of his NYU Law classmates. Furman, who stepped down last year as chairman of the board of Ben & Jerry’s, notes that when the picture was taken, he never imagined he would go on to help lead a multinational ice cream company.

Jeff Furman portrait
Jeff Furman '68

Furman knew that he wanted to make a difference in the world—but he couldn’t see himself in a formal business or legal setting. His classmate Robin Gross ’69 had to convince him to take the bar exam. “He was very irreverent, which I think he still is,” says Samuel Fox ’69, partner at Fox Law Group, who is pictured in the Minetta Tavern photo alongside Furman and Lawrence Fabian ’69. “He did his fair share of questioning authority, but always did it with a sense of humor.”

Following law school, Furman briefly worked for the Workers Defense League, representing workers in antidiscrimination, fair compensation, and unemployment insurance cases. Furman also represented conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War draft. Then, deciding to get away from city life, he moved to Paradox, New York, a small town in the Adirondacks, where he worked as a bus driver and substitute teacher at the Highland Community School, a small residential school and therapy center.

Ben Cohen—the “Ben” of Ben & Jerry’s—was also working at Highland as an arts and crafts teacher. When Cohen and his childhood friend Jerry Greenfield decided to open an ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont, they asked Furman to draw up the business plan.

Although Furman had an undergraduate business degree in addition to his law degree, he had never written a business plan before. He reached out to his classmate Gross, who had done similar work for a pizza parlor, and was able to show him the pizza parlor’s business plan. Together with Cohen and Greenfield, Furman adopted that plan for the ice cream shop. “We took out the word ‘pizza’ and put in ‘ice cream.’ Ovens became freezers, and numbers of slices became numbers of cones,” Furman says.

For the first few years after the store opened in May 1978, Furman did not have an official role in the business. However, when Greenfield left the company in the early 1980s, Cohen asked Furman to become more directly involved as one of the company’s directors. The business had gained a higher profile in 1981 when Time magazine called its product the “best ice cream in America,” and it was beginning to expand nationally. Furman says he was drawn to working with Cohen due to their shared philosophies about social justice and their shared belief that even as the company grew more successful, they could build a business with socially responsible practices.

Their first priorities, he said, were to serve the Vermont community and to ensure that employees were treated well. They began by “selling part of the company to the community in Vermont,” he says, financing a new factory with an intrastate public stock offering that allowed only Vermont residents to buy stock. Next, the company created a salary ratio policy so that for years, no one employee could earn more than five times any other employee’s salary. In 1985, they established the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation to give away 7.5 percent of the company’s profits to social justice causes. Furman was the foundation’s first trustee. Noting that Ben & Jerry’s continues to support causes such as the Poor People’s Campaign and the Black Lives Matter Movement, Furman says that he is proud that as the company has grown and changed, it has maintained those original values.

When Ben & Jerry’s was sold to Unilever in 2000, Furman personally ensured that the company’s social mission would remain intact, asking that Unilever make a commitment to continue to pay a living wage to all employees. Furman credits his Law School experience with giving him the idea to ask for standing to sue Unilever should it go back on that commitment—and Unilever agreed, sweetening the deal by agreeing to pay for his legal fees in such a situation. (Entry-level employees currently start at a wage of $17.60 an hour plus health insurance.)

Furman has also worked privately as an advocate for social justice throughout his life. In 1999, he founded Social Ventures, a small nonprofit that sponsors local Ithaca, New York, social justice projects that aren’t large enough to have their own individual organizational structure. “The whole thing is run out of a small filing cabinet,” Furman says, “But we’ve had some 50 projects, and some of them grow into their own independent ones.” Projects have included a free health clinic called the Ithaca Health Alliance and a youth theatre group.

Although Furman is stepping down from the board of Ben & Jerry’s after serving more than 30 years, he does not plan to retire from his work as a social justice advocate. He is currently on the board of the Oakland Institute, a progressive think tank that focuses on social, economic, and environmental issues, and is a national advisor to the Dorothy Cotton Institute, a human rights organization founded by civil rights leaders Dorothy Cotton; the Alliance of Families for Justice, an organization that supports the formerly incarcerated and their families; and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a group that funds reporting and photojournalism around issues of poverty and economic insecurity.

To his friends, this continued commitment to advocacy comes as no surprise. “He has a great capacity for empathy,” says Fox, who fondly remembers attending Occupy Wall Street rallies alongside Furman in 2011. “He is just a good-natured, kind human being, and someone whose friendship I’ve really savored—and has made me a better person.” 

Even as he steps away from the ice cream business, Furman says he will never lose the taste for ice cream. His favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor is Cherry Garcia, and he retains membership in Ben & Jerry’s “free ice cream for life” club.  “I do use it regularly,” Furman says, adding that he also loves to give away his free ice cream coupons: “What a wonderful thing to be able to do in life—to give somebody some free ice cream and make them smile.”  

Posted October 24, 2018; updated August 21, 2019