Raised in the town of Merrick on Long Island, by Jewish parents Frances and Irving, Cohen first met and befriended his future business partner Jerry Greenfield in a seventh grade high school gym class in 1963. In his senior year, Cohen found work as an ice cream man before heading off to attend Colgate University upstate.
Over the next decade, Cohen pursued his interest in pottery as he mixed further education - Skidmore, the University Without Walls program, the New School, and NYU - with a vast variety of menial labor - gigs as a McDonald's cashier, a Pinkerton guard, deliverer of pottery wheels, a mop-boy at Jamesway and Friendly's, an assistant superintendent, an ER clerk, and a taxi driver - before eventually settling on work as a craft teacher at a private school for emotionally disturbed adolescents. It was during his three years at the Highland Community School that he began experimenting with making his own ice cream.
Around 1977, Ben had decided to go into the food business with his old friend Jerry Greenfield, and in May of the next year, the two men opened Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in Burlington, Vermont. The pair conceived the idea in gym class at Merrick Avenue Middle School. They had initially intended to start a bagel business, but found the equipment costs prohibitive and switched to ice cream instead, choosing Burlington as a location because it was a prominent college town which lacked an ice cream shop. In part, their distinctive style of ice cream was developed to compensate for Ben's anosmia - his loss of smell and near-loss of taste - as Ben kept adding larger and larger chunks to the ice cream to satisfy his need for texture in food.
Ben & Jerry's became an instant hit in Burlington, drawing crowds with ice creams that mixed fresh local cream and milk with wild new flavors and "large portions of whatever ingredients they felt tasted good on the day of making."
Ben resigned as Chief Executive Officer in 1996. Ben has not been actively involved with the company since the Unilever acquisition in 2000, apart from his membership on the advisory board.
Cohen has been described as a hippie or ex-hippie. He is also a noted fan of the Grateful Dead.
As Ben & Jerry's gradually grew into a nationwide business and one of the largest ice cream companies in the USA, Cohen turned his new-found wealth and prominence toward a variety of social causes, generally through the Ben & Jerry's Foundation. The Foundation receives 7.5% of all Ben & Jerry's pre-tax profits and distributes funds to organizations such as the Anti Displacement Project. Cohen also oversaw TrueMajority and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities.
He is also vocal in his support of Democratic candidates, including Dennis Kucinich for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and John Edwards followed by Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Primaries and 2016 Presidential Election. Cohen debuted a special ice cream flavor called "Bernie's Yearning" on January 25, 2016 out of support for Sanders. Ben & Jerry's released a statement disavowing connection or support for the product, saying "This was created by Ben as a citizen. The company is not involved.”
In 2012, he helped launch the Stamp Stampede campaign to stamp messages on the nation's currency in support of passing a constitutional amendment to help overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and reduce the influence of private corporations on politics.
On April 18, 2016, Cohen was arrested, with Jerry Greenfield, while at a Democracy Awakening protest in Washington, D.C.Ben Cohen was honored by the New York Open Center in 2000 for his "leadership in pioneering socially responsible business."
Ben Cohen was a US Small Business Person of the Year in 1988.