Bennett Cohen was born on March 18, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York. He was born at the same Brooklyn hospital where his future friend and business partner, Jerry Greenfield, had been born just four days earlier. The two subsequently grew up near one another but did not meet until they were in the same seventh-grade gym class.
Cohen attended Colgate University for two years before dropping out and moving to Long Island. From 1971-74, he attended the University Without Walls (at Skidmore College), where he took courses in jewelry-making and pottery. He subsequently worked menial jobs until 1977. These included jobs as a cashier at McDonald’s; a guard at the Saratoga Raceway; a night mopper at a Jamesway store and a Friendly’s restaurant; an assistant superintendent at Gaslight Square Apartments (in Rochester, New York); a pottery wheel delivery person; a pediatric emergency-room clerk at Bellevue Hospital; and a taxi cab driver. He also took courses in experimental sound recording at The New School, and in art therapy at New York University. In addition, Cohen interned as a craft therapist at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and at the Grand Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side.
On May 5, 1978, Cohen and Greenfield together invested $12,000 to open an ice-cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont, which they named Ben & Jerry’s (B&J). The store was enormously successful and soon developed into a franchise business.
In 1985 Cohen and Greenfield created the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, a philanthropy that historically has taken 7.5% of B&J’s pre-tax profits and distributed them to organizations whose political and social agendas are consistent with the leftist leanings of the founders. In 1998 Cohen created Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a now-defunct organization that called for 15% of the U.S. defense budget to be transferred into educational funding.
In 2000, Cohen and Greenfield sold B&J to the British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever for $326 million. As Biography.com notes, “the sale … contained provisions to allow Ben & Jerry’s to maintain its existing social mission and brand identity.” Also under the terms of the sale, B&J became a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever and maintained a separate board-of-directors that included the two founders. The founders claimed, however, that they were now far removed from any leadership role in the company. As Greenfield put it in a 2008 interview, “[W]e’re not involved in operations or management. So we have no responsibility, no authority, and very little influence.”
In 2002, Cohen founded the group TrueMajority to promote a variety of anti-war, environmental, and social-justice agendas.
Cohen and Greenfield strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2004 they took a twelve-foot effigy of President George W. Bush on a national “Pants-on-Fire” tour, setting it ablaze at each location to signify that Bush had lied to the American people when he announced that major military hostilities in Iraq had ended.
In late 2010, as a number of Bush-era tax cuts were set to expire unless Congress intervened to extend them, Cohen was one of more than 45 millionaires who signed an open petition stating that tax breaks for the wealthy should be terminated “for the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens.”
In 2012, Cohen and Greenfield joined with other business leaders (calling themselves the Movement Resource Group) to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement.
Also in 2012, Cohen helped launch the “Stamp Stampede” campaign, whose purpose was to “Stamp Money Out Of Politics” by lobbying for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling which had struck down a ban preventing corporations and labor unions from funding the production of political campaign ads within 60 days of a general election.
In 2015, Cohen and Greenfield spoke out in support of the nuclear-weapons-program agreement that President Barack Obama and other world leaders were in the midst of negotiating with Iran. In an email to MoveOn.org activists, the B&J founders stated that the pending deal represented “the only peaceful way to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons” and to “kee[p] America out of another war in the Middle East.” Moreover, the longtime Democrat supporters vowed not to donate any money to congressional Democrats who failed to back the Iran accord.
In 2016, B&J paid honor to its preferred presidential candidate, the self-identified “Democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, by introducing a new flavor of ice cream, “Bernie’s Yearnings.” “The solid disk of chocolate” at the top of this item, Cohen explained, “represents … all of the wealth that’s gone up to the top one percent, and underneath [in the mint ice cream] is the rest of us, and the way you eat is just [to] whack it up into a bunch of little pieces and move it around.” Defending Sanders’s socialist economic politics, Cohen said: “We have a program in the U.S. called Social Security that puts people ahead of profits essentially. All Bernie’s talking about is making health care a human right and making access to education something that’s available to everybody regardless of how much money you have.”
In April 2016, Cohen and Greenfield were both arrested along with some 300 others at the U.S. Capitol during so-called “Democracy Awakening” protests agitating for an end to Voter ID requirements and for the restoration of an anachronistic provision (requiring mainly Southern states to undergo special federal scrutiny before being permitted to change their election laws in any way) that the Supreme Court had struck from the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
On May 17, 2016, B&J announced that the proceeds from yet another new ice-cream product, “Empower Mint,” would help fund the North Carolina NAACP’s campaign to repeal that state’s Voter ID law. At a local voter-registration drive that Cohen and Greenfield helped launch with North Carolina NAACP president William Barber, Cohen said he “felt really good” to be working with people “who’ve been struggling to get back their right to vote for them[selves] and other people of color.” Campaigning against voter suppression is “not something we get to do in Vermont,” added Cohen, “because they’re so white…. Right now we have a government that represents rich white people. That’s not what’s it’s about. We’ve got to overturn these laws.”
On March 3, 2018 in Burlington, Vermont, Cohen and two fellow activists were arrested for disorderly conduct after they had used a mobile public-address system to play the loud sounds of jet noises — all in an effort to persuade city officials to vote against allowing F-35 combat aircrafts to use the Burlington International Airport. “[Cohen] said the goal was to simulate what it might be like for residents living under the flight path of Vermont National Guard F-35 fighters,” the Bangor Daily News reported, and “he tweeted that if he [had] violated the city noise ordinance, then the fighter jets will, too.”
In September 2018, Cohen and Greenfield collaborated with MoveOn.org to initiate a “Take Back Congress” contest where participants were invited to think of creative names for new ice-cream flavors that would promote the congressional campaigns of seven progressive candidates who were running in the upcoming midterm elections. Those seven candidates were Democratic House challengers Jess King, Lauren Underwood, Aftab Pureval, J.D Scholten, Ammar Campa Najjar, Stephany Rose Spaulding, and James Thompson. In a press release announcing the contest, Cohen and Greenfield said: “We need a Democratic majority to check President Trump’s unrestrained power.”