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Ben & Jerry’s Approach to Racial Equity: Reach for the Carrot, Don’t Just Avoid the Stick

This piece was developed with guidance and input from the Living Cities Narrative Change Working Group, a collective impact consortium composed of foundations, financial institutions and key partners working to harness market forces for economic inclusion by shifting corporate narratives about racial equity. 

Ben & Jerry’s is known for setting a high bar when it comes to corporate activism. The company hasn’t shied away from taking on the big issues in society, and it makes an effort to more fully embed its values into its business practices.

It has cleaned up its supply chain, reduced its use of plastics and worked to minimize its carbon footprint as a dairy business. But when it came to racial equity, gaps persisted. For example, few Black people work at Ben & Jerry’s. As one successful Black franchisee said at the company’s annual meeting, “We’ve got to be 25% Black or it’s wack.” There were expectations for the company – and it needed to find a way to exceed those. It needed to focus on representation, power and culture change to address racial equity. 

This gap was not a surprise. As a corporate team, the company had studied systemic racism, conducted trainings on implicit bias and spent time with Reverend William Barber II learning about Moral Mondays. The point is, all the way up to the board level, Ben & Jerry’s knew this was a gap, yet it persisted year after year. 

Before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others in the summer of 2020, the company had committed to doing the hard work internally to finally align the company’s commitment to racial equity into how it operated as a company. It hired Race Forward to do an audit on how to advance equity inside the company, then hired Erika Bernabei and Theo Miller from Equity & Results to guide them in antiracist impact design and implementation – including a root cause analysis to ask the hard question: Why was racial equity not embedded Ben & Jerry’s business operations?

Ben & Jerry’s CEO Matthew McCarthy, company Global Social Mission Officer Dave Rapaport, along with Erika, shared more about what the company is now doing to make racial equity an essential part of the company’s culture. Six takeaways stand out. 

Start by understanding the root causes of why things are the way they are. This isn’t superficial work. With increasing frequency, friends reach out to Dave and ask him if he has something they can look at, a policy that will help them bring racial equity into their workplace. Dave is reluctant to do this. He says it’s not about a policy. It is about a deep understanding of what the underlying causes are that lead to inequities. Without this, companies only go for quick fixes, not the necessary holistic solutions. They say they will recruit better, which may bring in employees of color, but this won’t answer the question about why they don’t stay at a company and move up the ranks. He says, “We know that if you don’t get to the deep roots of the issue, you won’t really change, and you will fail. That’s our experience. If people are serious about racial equity, they need to commit to the long-term and deep work that is required.”

Be persistent, rigorous and patient. Ben & Jerry’s has been doing this internal work for more than a year and it will begin implementation in 2021. Erika, who co-leads the company through this work, points out that persistence is a critical strength when addressing market dominance or product innovation. But when it comes to doing racial equity work, businesses have a tough time doing the individual reflection required to be accountable. Frankly, it’s difficult work. Not because this self-reflection will lead companies to lose money, but because what is on the table can be perceived as interpersonal losses. Leaders have to acknowledge that they may not be fully responsible for racial inequities that persist in their company and in society, but they are accountable for ending them. Ben & Jerry’s has brought that rigor and spirit to the process and made this an internal priority. Erika and Theo’s team has had the attention of the full executive team not just for days, but for months. Ben & Jerry’s is committed to doing this work the right way, which takes time. There is pressure to see change, but while the murders in the summer of 2020 made the company feel intense urgency to overhaul the way it approaches racial equity within the business – it knows it has to do the deep work that will lead not only to changes in practices, but changes in culture and policy that will last.

Dave agrees: “If Ben & Jerry’s is purely about having more people of color on staff, we could have done things to try to increase numbers. But we know that the company has existed in a particular way for a long time, and we cannot shift our systems overnight. We could do band-aids if we wanted quick answers, but we want to understand the roots of the problems and address those. We want to have a culture that advances racial equity. The staff and executive team have to uncover these for ourselves with the help of outside guidance to check our blind spots, then come up with solutions. This challenges people’s attention spans. But we know we can’t change culture in 30 days and are committed to doing this right.”

Move toward the carrot, don’t just avoid the stick. Matthew strongly feels that, “At end of day, we humans do our best work toward carrots rather than away from sticks. Businesspeople trying to move away from looking bad or getting outed on Glassdoor isn’t a bad motivation, but it won’t sustain you. Believing these are the right things to do is a more sustainable motivation to move a team forward rather than fixing a problem or trying not to look bad.” He emphasizes that executives pursuing this work need to be ready for a lot of swings and misses. If the process isn’t filled with mistakes, and designed to create space for mistakes, it won’t get to the heart of what needs to happen. People have to face that we are part of the problem. Addressing this is filled with shame, and people avoid shame. It will feel painful. It’s difficult work, and executives need to prepare their teams to go through this. Done right, it is incredibly empowering. 

Don’t just say it is a priority, make it one. Dave says that a former staff person first led this work, but when that person left, it landed on his plate. This meant that for the first time, racial equity efforts at Ben & Jerry’s were spearheaded by a leadership team member. In his role as CEO, Matthew backed this as a priority. A global business, Ben & Jerry’s has many competing priorities, but Matthew never wavered when it came to putting time, energy and resources behind the racial equity work. “Progress requires looking backward and saying you could have done better,” he says. “Unless you are satisfied with how things are today, you need to be willing to embrace constructive dissatisfaction. Create the space for saying racial equity is a persistent gap. A huge one. We say we want to do something. We know we need to do something. But we aren’t making progress. This creates dissonance. It is different for people who don’t give a damn or think we are good where we are. We have to ask ourselves: Are we clueless or clued in but failing? Then live with that answer and do something about it.”

Realize that business is well-suited to do this work. Matthew says he originally thought this work was best done by human resources, a non-governmental organization or the government. But when he thought more about it, he realized business is better situated to expand economic opportunity, offer personal development and provide access to power. Businesses move faster than any other entity. He and Dave have enormous power as executives of a global company to use their energy to advance racial equity. 

The risk is not in doing comprehensive racial equity work, it is in not doing it. If companies are not doing something to solve injustice, the business is dead and coasting, and they just don’t know it. In a world of hyper-transparency, 15- to 20-year-olds are running the world and they will dictate which brands exist in 10 to 20 years. Not being involved in issues of top concern to them is dangerous. Boards of directors and shareholders should be asking what companies are doing to contribute positively to solving root causes of racial inequity. Leaders need to know that racial justice is going mainstream. What might seem fringe now will be how everyone does business in a blink. 

Matthew sums up both the urgency and the necessity of doing the racial equity justice work: “Everything that has transpired in the past three, six, 12 months – COVID, populism, racial injustice – all those things have shown the importance of doing this work. Sometimes when things go bad, these things get set aside. Everything that has happened has added giant logs to the fire of tackling this. What is so painful and beautiful about this moment is that you can’t turn away and not see it is all related to white supremacy. What I’d tell my peers is: If you want your business to be here in a decade, don’t ignore the urgency of addressing racial equity.”

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