What were you up to when you were 22 years old? I know I was mostly writing esoteric essays, not founding companies.
But when Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams was 22, she walked out of a figure drawing class and started selling ice cream for the first time. She was studying art at Ohio State University, trying to turn that into a career: “I’ve always thought entrepreneurially…I was working at a friend’s pastry shop, a rustic bakery. They were growing things in their own garden, they imported ingredients from France. It was really different from anything I’d known in the Midwest. And then I got into perfuming.”
Another one of Jeni’s friends was a chemistry graduate student, and he started bringing her scents to try. She seriously considered becoming a professional perfumer, but one day all three of her passions collided: “In my own kitchen I took [storebought] vanilla ice cream and I mushed in this Bulgarian rose oil. One drop… I had a chocolate ice cream too that I used cayenne essential oil in. I realized at that moment, as I tasted them, that ice cream is all about scent. Even the cheapest synthetically flavored ice cream is like an edible perfume.” Jeni realized that she could be artistic, play with the senses, and keep making sweet treats through ice cream. She had found her career.
From that day forward, she was focused. Six months later Jeni dropped out of art school to start selling ice cream full-time, “and that [began] my education. I mean, I was in an indoor public market. I started learning about ingredients and how they’re grown. Farmers were bringing stuff, the cheese shop, the wine shop, the chocolate shop, the spice shop — the Pakistani family that I learned from — all the different people that I learned from went into my ice cream.”
Over twenty years (and a couple companies) later, her ice cream is being sold in stores all over the country. It’s an amazing achievement that lets Jeni focus almost exclusively on creating fun flavors and writing their labels – she still does that herself. It’s her ideal scenario: At the end of the day, an unexpected, personal product is Jeni’s goal.
Her success is just a byproduct of that devotion: “I feel like I tell people a lot, especially young people, that if you follow the things that pique your curiosity… eventually you’ll come to this place where the things that interest you become an opportunity, a future that you can create as a business.” Jeni knows that doesn’t always take you in the most glamorous or lucrative direction right away. But she also has firsthand experience to show that it works. “We celebrate these unicorn entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who achieve the unachievable. But we don’t celebrate the everyday entrepreneurs who are building companies and growing brands over decades.”
Jeni sees any company as a community. Each person you hire contributes to that culture, and if you focus on running a business according to, “your values, whether you know how to identify them or not… it’s a way to make really beautiful products. It’s less about whatever round of funding you’re on and more about how many people you’ve convinced to buy whatever it is you’re doing. And that’s all about personal relationships and doing what you want to do.”
One would think that running a company with that philosophy would become more difficult as it grew, but Jeni says that in many ways, she’s experienced the opposite. Being in supermarkets all across America means she can access higher quality dairy, better tasting fair trade chocolate, research the best way to make a consistent product, and do it all more efficiently. It also means she gets to bring more people together more often.
“In the Midwest at least, it’s just something you do. It’s like going to see a movie or a play. Other people climb mountains. We don’t have those in the Midwest, so we go get ice cream. It’s a way of spending time together and getting to know someone else better. ” As far as Jeni’s concerned, there’s no goal more important than that.