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Company is community

By Jeni Britton Bauer

Feb 21, 2018

Photo courtesy of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.

Despite being born in New Jersey, and having spent my earliest years on a U.S. Army base in Germany, I am a Midwesterner to the core — raised in Peoria, Illinois, and Columbus, Ohio, surrounded by family who instilled in me an entrepreneurial spirit that still guides me today.

As often as they could, my two grandmothers reminded me what a lucky girl I was — to be an American, with all the privilege that comes with it. And, unlike them, to be born at a moment when anything was possible for a girl from the heart of Illinois, with no other discernible advantage but a loving, hard-working, responsible, working-class family.

My life as an entrepreneur started with my grandmother’s advice that, “If you can’t find a job, make one.” I always thought that meant starting a business, so I made things and sold them. This started in elementary school and continued into college where I studied art and dreamt of one day becoming a perfumer, constantly blending essences from flowers and herbs into wearable perfumes.

My interest in scent inspired a curiosity in flavor, and I began to make ice creams with the incredible ingredients I had collected. Once I figured out that ice cream — in particular American ice cream because it’s higher in scent-absorbing butterfat, is served colder, and melts slower — was the perfect canvas for flavor, I quit art school and began making ice cream full time.

I learned how to run a business by doing. I just started. And I went about building a business the way I think it should be done: creating the type of company that I would want to work at. In fact, I much prefer the word “company” over “business” because it means community — it means you are not alone. This approach was the inspiration for what we at Jeni’s Ice Cream now call the Fellowship Model.

The Fellowship Model is based on the belief that it takes a community of people to build ice cream from the ground up: growers, makers, producers, suppliers, customers. And the people and companies who make Jeni’s ice cream possible aren’t anonymous accounts; they’re our partners — and we couldn’t run our company without them.

The Fellowship Model is about knowing who you’re doing business with. We believe we get higher quality ingredients when we know the people we’re buying from, so we buy direct whenever we can.

Our model also means lifting up your partners, building relationships that will last. This pays dividends in the long-run. When our whiskey distillers need a large pre-order of whiskey to help them secure a bank loan, we’ll buy it sight unseen. And then they’ll pay us back when we need a special concentrate for our ice cream — making a product with stronger whiskey flavor, but with less alcohol.

Most importantly for us, the Fellowship Model means putting relationships over profits. Maybe it’s my Midwestern roots, or the church potluck girl in me, but I disagree when I hear someone say that business is just about money. While I think that business and entrepreneurship are the keys to true American freedom, it’s ultimately about community. A partnership of devoted people working in service to quality, integrity, and community is a wonderful adventure, full of meaning and purpose.

Vice President Biden enjoys a cone with the owner at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Toledo Blade, 2012.

I know that there are other ways of doing business; the Fellowship Model isn’t for everyone. Some might see their supply chain as competitors, with everyone vying against each other for the best price. And some might see their workers as the opposition, fighting against management for higher pay — driving down the company’s bottom line.

This thinking isn’t for me, and it’s not right for my company. I don’t believe Jeni’s could produce its ice cream if we did business differently — if we didn’t know the growers behind our strawberries or the farmers supplying our dairy. Fellowship isn’t just a pleasant byproduct of our business philosophy; it’s the essence of our product.

Every partner we work with is devoted to one thing: making better ice creams. And that’s because first we are devoted to each other, and to the people and communities we serve. We are a diverse community of thinkers and doers working together. We rely on each other. And it’s a beautiful place.

I am so glad to be an entrepreneur from the Midwest. Like the great Midwesterners that we are, our team dreams about what’s out there, imagines what’s possible and tries to live up to what we imagine, not what’s actually there. I love that we live in an America where a little girl can grow up to be whoever she is strong enough to become, and where she can run a company the best way she knows how.

About the author:

Jeni Britton Bauer is the founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. A pioneer of the artisan ice cream movement, she introduced a modern, ingredient-driven style of ice cream making that has been widely emulated across the world, but never duplicated. Jeni is a 2017 Henry Crown Fellow and has been recognized by Fast Company as one of the most creative people in business today.