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By Traci Rosenthal
Matthew McCarthy, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, considers himself an aspiring activist. But anyone familiar with McCarthy’s courageous leadership style and socially conscious values system would call this self-description modest.
During his three short years at the helm of the company, McCarthy has made his mark by building upon the positive impact that Ben & Jerry’s, a beloved ice cream company founded by Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen in 1978, has already had in the markets and the communities it serves. The company has never faltered from its original intention of serving ice cream with integrity, quality, and responsibly sourced products, even when it was acquired as a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever in 2000. If anything, McCarthy has doubled down on integrating Ben & Jerry’s progressive values into every aspect of its daily business activities, including using its voice to champion causes in business and society. The company has notably taken public stands on criminal justice reform, LGBTQ+ rights, and racial equality, to name a few.
Thus, McCarthy was eminently worthy of receiving this year’s Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics from Columbia Business School’s Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics.
Endowed by the late Benjamin Botwinick, BS ’26, and his wife, Bessie, in 1989, the prize is one of the School’s most prestigious awards honoring an individual exemplifying the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct as well as ethical decision-making and leadership. This year’s Prize comes during one of the most tumultuous and divided periods in history with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated societal, economic, and health disparities and injustices. Rather than shrinking away from the intensity of the moment, McCarthy leaned in.
“When you have the privilege of working on large businesses and large brands, small changes can have a big impact. Big changes can have an enormous impact,” McCarthy recently told moderator and Bernstein Faculty Director Modupe Akinola.
McCarthy, a white male of privilege by his own admission, understands his limitations but uses his authority to unlock the energy and knowledge of his organization and team to take action.
“What's not OK is to be someone who has privilege and pretend you don't,” McCarthy said. “It started to dawn on me that my lived experience as a white male with a whole lot of privilege is to acknowledge that one of the biggest byproducts of structural racism in this country and around the world is blocking people from opportunity, fairness, equity, and economic self-empowerment.”
Throughout the inspirational program, McCarthy dove deep into today’s relevant issues, never shying away from a tough topic. Here are some of his thoughts, edited for space:
Journey of Self Discovery and Purpose
“Ten or twelve years ago, I started getting much more interested in the sustainability and impact side of business in addition to growing brands and businesses. The more I opened my eyes to the opportunity and urgent need for businesses to take responsibility for their externalities, the more I realized it was not only a good thing for communities, people, and the planet, but it was becoming more central to my brand identity and my ability to compete.
That intersection between what you stand for and what you do just grew for me. While I love growing businesses, I was also getting hungrier for leveraging the business to drive change. I kept progressing in a way where businesses that were more purpose oriented, businesses that were bringing their values forward were more attractive to me.”
The Evolution of Business Ethics
“When I was more junior and we talked about business ethics, it was primarily things like how not to get arrested or how not to do things that were unethical and illegal. Then gradually it expanded into more things around fairness in the workplace, but I don't think it went as far as I see today. So now I ask the question, if something is unjust, can it be ethical? Business ethics is no longer avoiding getting caught doing bad stuff; business ethics is driving ethical behavior and is directly related to justice.
There is also a very misguided idea that business should not be engaged with its own values. Businesses are groups of people that come together to do something, and all people have values, so it is completely irrational that we, as humans, would be asked to leave our values at home. For decades, businesses have quietly expressed their values through campaign contributions and lobbying. Now we are in a moment of hyper transparency—what you do is directly related to who you are and how you are seen by your constituents. Bringing your values to work is not only OK, it is essential. It doesn't mean everybody needs to agree, but a business must make its values clear.”
Employee Activism within Organizations
“If you know it's the right thing to do, particularly when it comes to nutrition, or health, or safety, you've got to do it. It's my job to make those calls. You have to conspire in organizations. I say that openly, without any sort of hidden agenda. Big organizations have a certain momentum. Some of that momentum is good. Some of that momentum repeats things from the past that are not helpful in moving the organization forward. Sometimes you have to conspire with other like-minded folks in the organization to get stuff done.”
“At different points in my career, I’ve felt more or less connected to my employer. Sometimes you have moments that go great; sometimes you have moments where things are not going great. In hindsight, those moments where things were not going great were my most valuable. Say I had a coworker I did not get along with or a boss that was blocking my career, those things were painful and difficult at the time, but they made me ask myself: Should I stay part of this company? What is the right thing to do? I learned more from my difficult experiences than I did my successes. Success is great, but after success you move on. Adversity, however, is a very powerful teacher. I would encourage people to move toward adversity.
When you are in moments of adversity, give yourself the gift of asking, why is this challenging? What can I learn from this moment? How can I take what could be considered a painful or difficult situation and reinvest that into my future? And, learn how to help other people move through adversity. If you have something difficult, don't run away from it, run toward it.”
But it was after all of the serious discussion centered around human and animal rights, business growth, and leadership skills, that McCarthy answered the question that was on everyone’s mind . . . Phish Food, the CEO’s favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor is a decades-old classic.