On Sunday, Aug. 7, Jeni gave the commencement address to Ohio State University’s 2016 summer class (and walked away with an honorary doctorate in business administration). Her primary message: Creativity is not some elusive quality reserved for artists and musicians. We are all creative thinkers. Here is the transcript from her recent address.
To this year’s graduates—congratulations! We are celebrating today your incredible accomplishment from a place that is near and dear to my heart, a place that I love, The Ohio State University!
But before I talk about you—why don’t you clap, yell, and scream for your parents, family, and friends who helped you get here. This day is theirs as much as it yours.
President Drake—thank you for that introduction and for your leadership of this incredible university. To be honest, when you asked me to be this year’s commencement speaker, I was first extraordinarily honored, but I won’t lie, I also wondered if it might be a mistake.
I dropped out of OSU when I was 21, exactly half my life ago. I was an art and art history major by day, creeping around Lisa Florman or Stephen Melville’s art history classes, even the ones I wasn’t taking that quarter, and an aspiring pastry chef by night who had become obsessed with—wait for it—not another Dutch Master, not the perfect almond croissant, but perfuming.
In fact, my dream as an OSU student was a one-way ticket out of Columbus to Grasse, France—the perfume capital of the world—where I would convince someone to teach me how to be a nose, because that’s what they call people who blend perfumes for a living. And I wanted to be one.
I was blending essential oils into perfumes in my home kitchen in my spare time, and handing them out to friends. I also cooked with essential oils, throwing the oil of basil into pasta or rose petal into a creme brulee, and one day I had the idea to use ice cream as carrier of scent. Perfumers use solid fats like coconut oil to hold and carry scent, and ice cream is lusciously high in butterfat.
I soon found myself adding cayenne essential oil to a tub of store-bought chocolate ice cream. I took a bite and felt the cold, tasted the sweet, and the chocolate. Then it burst into flames in my throat. I knew in that second the enormous potential of ice cream as an edible perfume—as crazy as that sounds.
In that moment, it was as if the sky opened up and I saw my future in an instant. I became consumed by the idea of making beautiful ice creams, like rose petal, sweet fennel, jasmine, vanilla and other flavors as fast as I could.
I suddenly realized that American ice cream could be a lot more interesting than it was, and scent was just the beginning. The possibilities were limitless when I thought of ice cream from a pastry chef, artist, and perfumer’s perspective. It was all I could think about. And about opening a business.
So about a month later, as a model entered my figure drawing class—a model I knew I could not, and did not want to draw—I got up, left all of my supplies, my portfolio of my best work, and I went home to make ice cream, and never looked back.
Now to the parents—don’t worry. This is not when I tell your sons and daughters they should’ve dropped out by now to be a nose or make scented ice cream. I’m the last person to give out advice since I have never been known to take someone else’s. But frankly, when it comes to education, I’ve always liked the Jeffersonian approach. Go until you think you’re smart enough, and then go out and try your hustle. If you feel inadequate, go back. Your success is on you.
Life is about the hustle and the go. And what defines you is not a degree from this prestigious university—but your reputation, your name, the only thing you can really lay claim to in this world. The sum of all your actions. The pattern of your choices. And your creativity—which is what I’d like to talk to you about today.
Life is about the hustle and the go. And what defines you is not a degree from this prestigious university—but your reputation, your name, the only thing you really own in this world.
To demystify creativity—the word, and the process—through the lens of a boots-on-the-ground, street-educated, bare-knuckled entrepreneur. Because there’s this idea that creative people are fundamentally different, born that way, or possess a talent that is unattainable to others.
I disagree. Creativity is always right in front of all of us. It’s not just within intrepid Americans I admire—Ray and Charles Eames, Walt Whitman, Julia Child, Beyonce, and countless others who forged their own paths. The best police officers, mothers, attorneys, nurses, mechanics, scientists, painters, and community organizers are the most creative ones.
They look for opportunity where others look away. They trust their instincts and abilities. They always think their way out of trouble, using the same resources we all have.
As I mentioned earlier, I came to ice cream from an art perspective. But I ended up as much a scientist over time. And I use the same brain for both. It’s the creative thinking approach that doesn’t change. And I have seen as we’ve built our company—how similar art and design thinking actually is to finance and chemistry and logistics. I have seen how our team thinks and how they apply their knowledge to find resources and patterns that enable the possible out of the impossible. And I learn from them everyday.
And this I know for certain, you are all creative thinkers. I know this because my company is full of graduates from The Ohio State University.
But the question is whether you believe in the power that you possess to change something? And is that enough to get you to act on that belief? For creativity is nothing more than being curious and impatient.
Curiosity leads to an idea and compels you to project that idea into the future. You ask yourself, how can this idea impact my company, my community, the world? And that becomes your vision. And once you see that vision, you feel it, and you become impatient. It becomes impossible to stay in your seat.
That’s how I felt when I dropped out of OSU 1996. That I had to give ice cream a go. I had so many ideas, so many questions, and my sense of urgency boiled over. Eventually I opened Scream ice cream in the North Market, a few months after leaving school, when I was 22 years old. For four years it was my Room of One’s Own. A 20 foot by 20 foot stand where I took home $638 a month to live on. I lived out of my car for three months, and in various squalid apartments during those years. I took the bus, rode my bike, and mostly walked everywhere. The only way I ate everyday was because the merchants of the market fed me.
And thank heavens Instagram wasn’t around back then. It was already almost unbearable to watch my friends get their raises, promotions, and cars without it, while I toiled away and everyone told me to quit.
You are all creative thinkers. But the question is whether you believe in the power that you possess to change something?
But I lived and breathed Scream ice cream. I created, tweaked, tinkered, and learned everyday. I learned about seasonality. I picked up the complex science of ice cream. I began to understand the heart of customer service and customer preferences and standards.
But I didn’t get it right at Scream. I thought of myself at the Great Ice Cream Artiste! And it took me a while to realize my mistakes in that. I made whatever flavors I wanted to each day, and so when someone came by and fell in love with my Salty Caramel, and brought 5 people back the next day to experience it, I would not have it.
It took me a while to understand what entrepreneurship is—a two way conversation with your customers. So, I closed Scream to reassess. Not my vision, but my plan.
At this point most people expect me to wax poetic about the power of failure. But as far as I’m concerned, they can call me a failure when I’m dead—until then it’s a developing story.
Though we did not make any money, and I barely had any customers, Scream was a huge success—because it transformed me from an aspiring artist into an ice cream Jedi. Scream gave me time to explore, and build just enough knowledge to be dangerous enough to believe American ice cream is truly unique in the world and our company would set the standard for it.
This is often what so many companies think of as outside the box thinking. And they try to replicate it in complicated brainstorming sessions.
But here’s the deal. Impatient curiosity gets you off your chair. You learn as you go. You make discoveries that people marvel at—but you’re actually thinking inside the box, using the same set of resources and demands as everyone else has. You build the box, that’s your challenge, then you get in and explore. And you do your best with what you’ve got.
That’s what I did when I closed Scream and before I opened up Jeni’s in 2002 with a new plan. One that allowed me to open back up and build resources, actually attract customers, and challenge established know-how in ice cream.
At Jeni’s I set up two ice cream cabinets: one for our most popular flavors like Salty Caramel, Wildberry Lavender, Bangkok Peanut, and the other cabinet for experimental and seasonal flavors like green tea with toasted rice and handmade marshmallows, or a whole collection inspired by the colors in a Matisse painting. A stage I could use to tell stories, and transport people in time or place. Our customers could come in for an adventure and taste every new flavor, even if they ultimately ordered their old standby.
And our lines grew. Our business grew. But the culture of our company remained the same—creative, impatient, curious Or talent, hustle, guts as we say.
Today, our company is a community of over 600 people devoted to making the best ice creams we can imagine. We are growers, makers, suppliers and producers, mathletes, artists, truckers, scoopers churning the incredible bounty of Ohio into ice cream. And people seem to like it. We have 23 stores in five states, and a raging grocery and online business.
But the point is, I didn’t set out to make the best ice creams in Columbus, or Ohio, or America, or the World, even. I set out to make the best ice creams I could imagine. Because what you can imagine is always better than what actually exists—but you have to make it happen, make it real.
We are propelled by our ideas. And the fact that it doesn’t always come out right is a part of the iterative process of being an explorer making discoveries. It means we are never finished, we are always pressing forward.
And that leads to a final point I’d like to make about creativity, that in many ways is the first thing to know about it. That it comes from a place of love. Of feeling one with all people, and of an impatience to find a better way. Not just cheaper, not just in service to self, and not at the expense of others.
But it’s the reason we all do anything to make our neighborhoods, our communities, our companies, our world better. To lift people up. And if there is a mystical element of creativity that some people don’t or can’t understand, well, maybe that’s it.
But it’s the one I am fully confident all of you possess. You’re part of the most-tolerant, most-connected, most-compassionate generation we’ve ever had. But it’s up to all of you to channel all of your passions, all of your creativity to make the world better for you, and everyone around you.
Class of 2016, that’s my wish for you on this important day. A life of incurable curiosity and impatience. Of unimaginable adventure—in pursuit of your impossible vision.