Jeni Britton Bauer makes life taste good.
And the founder of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams says that if her business was a flavor it would be Dark Chocolate: "Complex and game-changing, hard to replicate."
That's not to say others haven't tried.
But with over two decades dedicated to the scoop game, Jeni knows a thing or two about packing a pint, finding new flavors, and running a team. She started in her car, so hitting the sweet spot didn't come easy. There were learning curves, major lessons and hard, trailblazing work.
But life right now is sweet-- and well deserved.
More from the Ice Cream biz's master maker below.
First things first. Pink hair, don't care?
My outward expression of myself has played a big role in my career and success. I quit art school to start my first ice cream business back in 1996. I had very pale pink hair back then (I mixed Manic Panic Flamingo Pink into my conditioner to dye my platinum blonde). I always loved it— should have been born with it. I also used to wear thrifted clothes back then and punky outfits. It was all part of my thing. What I didn’t realize until I closed that business and wanted to start again is that your look can unintentionally alienate a lot of people. I was not portraying a person in charge. I simply wasn’t. We can debate about it all day, and I wish I could say that it didn’t matter, but it did. When the food critic came over, he had no reason to believe I was the one in charge, and, believe it or not, how you look helps set the tone of the conversation. That first impression is everything, and it will make the ice cream taste better or worse. Believe me. Also, your own perspective is altered by what you believe about yourself. I believed I was a counterculture artist, or wanted to be—and that isn’t very warm and welcoming to the rest of the world. Even more, I had not even done the work to earn that reputation! It was all a bullshit exterior. I was identifying with others’ work, not my own. And that is so transparent. When I started my second business, after my first failure, I wanted to convey personal strength, professionalism, humility, and self-control (literally the opposite of my former self). The ice cream was the same, but I had changed. This time the same food critic loved the same ice creams he’d written off before. I took all emphasis off of me and put it on my ice creams, and more importantly, the wide array of wonderful human beings who were potential customers. By cutting my hair short, dying it back to dark blonde, and choosing to wear a starched white shirt and apron as a uniform every day, I got into character. I was an ice cream maker and shopkeeper in a busy market. This helped me fit into the vibe there and be accepted into the community—and begin to build a brand and a company that means something to people. I put a lot of credit on this transformation for my success. It got me the important first impressions I needed to build a trusted small business in my city and beyond. It was how I put myself aside and truly got into the spirit of service. It has made all the difference in my life.
But now is different. I’ve put in the time (22 years, half my life), laid the groundwork and foundation for what I do.
So the pink hair is back—so are my outfits. The lesson to me, and advice I give as I look back on two decades of hustle is to get into the character you are trying to convey— nerdy as it may be. And let it start with humility. Make the character about the work, and then focus on the work. Build equity and trust and credibility in your name, not your clothing or hairstyle. It’s the only thing you actually own.
Now. The way you talk about flavor profiles is like the way people talk about great loves. Do you think loving what you do is an important part of being an entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur, and more importantly, a maker is an emotional endeavor. It’s like listening to a singer delivering a beautiful song. You either feel the melody in your soul or it falls at. That comes down to whether the singer is emotionally into it enough to care about the tiniest details, and whether they are brave enough to put themselves out there—put everything on the line for it. That comes from experience, of both love and, to some extent, suffering. Making things, communicating with people, and building a culture of service is emotional just like a beautifully delivered song. It’s about making people’s lives better, even for a moment. And it’s about every perceivable detail.
For me, it isn’t that I love what I do. I am obsessed with it. I care so deeply that it feels good and also it hurts. I love being in it every day, and when I’m not, I crave it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that is the thing. It’s emotional. You cannot build a community unless you care so deeply that you will risk everything for it. That’s not dramatic. That’s what it takes (at least for me). And no money in the world can buy that passion. You get it by building slowly on a shoestring and truly getting to know what you do and who you do it for and why. By making decisions every day based on what you believe is right. It’s about staying true to your ideas and building upon them as you learn. And never taking things at face value. You can’t teach it or explain it. You get it or you don’t. And it’s everything
What are the common challenges you've seen among female business owners and entrepreneurs?
They don’t trust themselves. But the great thing is that, as a collective, we do trust ourselves. And together we are such an incredible force. We encourage each other and inspire each other. So we can overcome our insecurities together.
Where do your drive and passion come from?
Honoring the work that I and countless others laid in those early years and that continues all over our company. When I was young and trying to figure out who I was going to be I didn’t have a strong family to fall back on. I was either going to make it or I was going to end up like so many others I knew— without power and hope. So I decided I wasn’t going to live in a basement my whole life. And I wasn’t going to blame others. And I wasn’t going to ever say, “Why me?” I was going to fight like hell and make it out or go down trying.
It literally was life or death to me. And I am grateful for it. Many kids I grew up with had safety nets and what ended up happening is that they took no risks! I had nothing. So I had nothing to lose. The jump off the cliff without a parachute was safer than the wolves on the other side. But I owe my passion and success to all of that. And I am grateful for it.
When you run into a career obstacle or a speed bump, how do you find new roads?
I nd a way over them. I like to say: “Those are not bumps in the road. They are the road.” But it’s not exactly a perfect metaphor. Roads are too predictable to be a good metaphor for a life of entrepreneurship. They are at and, once laid, they are relatively easy to travel even with the bumps.
The truth is that every entrepreneur I have ever met is really good at going up against the odds. It’s the only thing that gives you your edge over anyone else. When most people see bumps or brick walls, they turn and run. But not entrepreneurs. They are too curious about the “what if” to turn around. And, often it’s actually not that treacherous. Sometimes it is, but you just go. The hard thing is when everyone else in your life wants to jump in and save you from YOURSELF! Don’t do it Jeni! It’s too dangerous! Get back on the easy path. Nah. There is no easy path. But there are some that are greater adventures.
Speaking of roads, I've probably told a hundred women your "these aren't bumps in the road, this IS the road," quote about running a company. Have any more gems you'd care to share?
Lately, I prefer a sea analogy. To get to point B you’ve got to be brave. You’ll swerve up and down, in and out, go all topsy-turvy and still when it’s all added up, you’re moving toward your North Star. Everyone will think you’re fucking nuts. And by their definition, you are.
But remember you are the captain of your ship. You did your homework, built the ship, got to know its power. Now convince people to get on your boat and help you. And trust yourself that no matter what storm hits, you are good enough to correct course, figure it out, fight through it. Learn. Pretend you are the only one who has ever done it. Do not compare your work to others.
Don’t expect certainty. The people I know who are the most certain are the least likely to get anywhere interesting because they can’t learn and adjust and freestyle. So much of this is training yourself to be good enough to not have to think but to act correctly without thinking. That’s Jedi shit, and it only comes from testing yourself.
What are your biggest fears about running a business?
I have no fears in business anymore. I have battled the Balrog of the Misty Mountains and won. I am a white fucking wizard. My only fears are as a parent. That said, I work every day to be better, and if that’s not enough then it’s not enough.
What's the Jeni's legacy you hope to leave behind?
You know this is something we, as a company, are thinking about more and more. We want Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams to be the next great American ice cream company. In other words, an ice cream company that sets the standard for service, integrity, transparency, and deliciousness for generations to come. As Jeni the person, I just want to have a good time and make people’s lives better while I’m here.
What's something you'd like people to know about your job that they probably don’t?
I work constantly. I’m never not working. And I’d rather be doing that than just about anything else. For me it all starts from a place of love.
I grew up making things with my artist grandmother. While she always moved on to the next thing, I wanted to get so good at the rst thing that I could make dozens. Build inventory. Then sell them. Baskets made out of dried and dyed weeds, doll sweaters. And I was always the neighborhood organizer. We’d have a fundraiser or something. It was all play.
I’m still doing that every day now. Exactly the same feeling. Still just as fun.
Photo Credit: @davisfactor