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Ben & Jerry’s Core Academy Serves Up More Than Ice Cream

Topics: Work Culture

Ben & Jerry’s is out to establish itself as far more than an ice cream company.

For decades, Ben & Jerry’s has fostered a business model based on social good and ethical business practices. It was one of the first companies to offer health benefits for employees’ same-sex domestic partners, and did so way back in 1989, before striking down DOMA was even part of the conversation. Add in Ben & Jerry’s’ B-Corp status, a complete shift to GMO-free ingredients back in 2015, an unapologetic commitment to doing business that’s good for the world, and Jerry Greenfield’s motto, “If it’s not fun, why do it?” and it’s plain to see that Ben & Jerry’s mission extends well beyond selling ice cream.

Ben & Jerry's
Courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s

Now the company is giving employees yet another reason to love their jobs. Thanks to a new online learning initiative, Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop employees now have access to online courses designed to help teach the elements of business you don’t always learn from a training shift —  things like social activism, emotional intelligence and cultural literacy. It’s all part of the Core Academy, a curriculum partnership with Champlain College designed to help transition scoop shop employees into the next chapter of their professional lives. And best of all? It’s all free.

A Need-Based Offering

Like so many of the company’s social offerings, the Core Academy grew out of a demonstrated need. Two years ago, Colette Hittinger, Senior Manager of Franchise Operations for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Project Manager for the Core Academy, wanted deeper insight into the employees working behind scoop shop counters. After a company-wide survey of scoop shop franchises revealed a trend of first-time workers in shops, the company realized they had an obligation to offer employees something beyond a living wage at a summer job.

“We found that 80 percent of the folks in our scoop shops were students, and that for 80 percent of that group, this was the first job they’d ever had. That’s a pretty big number. So we took a step back and said … we have a much bigger obligation here if this is true of our workforce.”

That obligation, Hittinger says, extends beyond the skill-set typical of a first job. In addition to things like customer service and cleanliness, the company wanted to leave employees with transferable skills that could set them up to transition out of scoop shop work and into the professional landscape.

“We always say that we don’t want folks scooping for life in our shops,” Hittinger continues. “Seasonal employment is standard. They’ll come back for three seasons or so, and then they’ll move on to another job. And that’s great. But we wanted to give them something new to move on with.”

A Collaborative Effort

To create programming tailor-fit to the needs of the company and its employees, Hittinger recruited a cohort of fellow Ben & Jerry’s HQ employees to help her sketch out new professional development programming. The company also tapped Vermont-based Champlain College for help cultivating an online curriculum that was both interactive and accessible. After a series of focus groups, employee surveys and content workshops, a course prototype using Champlain’s state-of-the-art online education platforms and Ben & Jerry’s core values was born.

Ben & Jerry's
Courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s

Since then, the company has developed three courses as part of the Core Academy, with a fourth course on Social Equity scheduled to be ready at the end of the month. Despite being hosted completely online, Hittinger says the courses are extremely interactive, with everything from discussion modules, writing papers, creating memes, finding offline inspiration in poetry and literature, and creating videos built into the coursework.

Scoop shop employees can apply to take the courses at no cost to them. Once accepted, they’re assigned into student groups and given a “teacher-host” (usually a staff-person from Ben & Jerry’s corporate) to lead them through the coursework. Courses are four weeks long, with each week divided into its own learning module. While the subject matter varies, each is designed to help students hone future-facing soft skills needed to become become leaders in the community and the workplace. Courses like “Beyond the Job” examine emotional intelligence, personal strengths assessment, and how to interact with customers and co-workers more effectively, and the forthcoming Social Equity course is designed to help students explore things like group identity bias, and how the latent assumptions we make about a person before we know them can influence our experience, and theirs.

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“It’s a really challenging subject in this day and age, especially with everything that’s going on in the world,” Hittinger explains. “This is the longest we’ve ever taken to create a course, because we really want to get this as right as possible … we think it can be a real difference-maker.”

While each course has an interpersonal element to it, the subject matter is rooted in developing the sort of soft skills that employers say much of today’s workforce is sorely lacking.

By the Numbers

With 50 students per course and six rounds of courses, they’ve already served 300 students, and feedback has been extremely positive. Before concluding a course, each student is required to complete an exit survey, and Hittinger says the Core Academy already boasts a 95 percent top box rating (rated 3 or 4 on a 1-4 scale) for all courses. Additionally, a metric called “same store sales,” which is used to measure sales across scoop shops of similar parameters, has revealed a change in profits, too. Stores with employees enrolled in the Core Academy showed significantly higher sales increases than those without — a stat that isn’t surprising to Hittinger.

“We’ve definitely always felt that the more motivated folks are, the better team players they’ll be, and the better the business will be. We think it inspires folks to participate.”

Since launching, courses have evolved beyond scoop shop employees, and are now available to full-time Ben & Jerry’s corporate employees, too. After completing the programs, students are given a joint certificate from Champlain College and Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim. But beyond a resume boost and a cool t-shirt, students leave the Core Academy with a new set of transferable skills that hopefully give them a leg up on the competition. Some students have even been given opportunities at Ben & Jerry’s Corporate. Recent Core Academy grads have been tapped by the company to lead voter registration campaigns.

Why Other Companies Should Follow Suit

As much as the Core Academy reflects the Ben & Jerry’s ethos, Hittinger insists that the courses could stand alone even without the B&J stamp of approval attached to them. At its core, the Core Academy is really about cultivating the soft skills needed for success in any professional environment. Hittinger encourages other companies interested in doubling down on professional development to consider beefed up programming that reflects the company’s mission.

“The whole idea started with the idea of developing team members so that they can be more productive today, but have better opportunities in the future. But that’s not just a Ben & Jerry’s thing,” Hittinger insists. “Every company out there should be doing this. And there’s lot of ways you can do that.”

It’s also worth noting that every corporate employee who works on the Core Academy has another role at Ben & Jerry’s. But thanks to a company-wide give-back ethos, and a passionate interest in cultivating positive, socially conscious leaders for tomorrow, Hittinger hasn’t had any trouble recruiting corporate employees to her cause.

“This is the most fun we’ve ever had at work.”

…Which is saying a lot for a company that has a treehouse and a slide in the middle of the lobby, dogs hanging out around the building, and a “three free pints a day” policy for all employees.

Tell Us What You Think

Would a program like this help you in your career? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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