Robert Holland Jr., 81, who blazed many trails in the business world, including becoming the first Black CEO of ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s, has died, BLACK ENTERPRISE learned Thursday.
Holland was referred to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s founders after they initiated a “YO! I’m Your CEO” search for a new company leader. The crusade attracted over 25,000 candidates and became one of the most publicized searches in corporate history. Holland pursued the role largely because he remembered the segregated ice cream stores in Albion, Michigan, as as a child. He was asked to write an essay and wrote a poem, “Time, Values, and Ice Cream.” It narrated his experience with the segregation.
Holland became Ben & Jerry’s CEO in February 1995, making him the first Black American to head a major corporation. A true pioneer and groundbreaker, he was well-versed in entrepreneurship, a brilliant engineer, and a longtime corporate director. He was a philanthropist centered on education as well as STEM topics specifically. His job stints included helping integrate the technical and sales management ranks at Mobil Oil, and he was the first Black partner at McKinsey & Company.
Born and raised in a racially segregated town in Michigan, during his early years, Holland recalled when a high school guidance counselor nearly derailed his dream of becoming an engineer when she handed him a list of trade schools. Determined to carry out his goals, Holland went on to seek out a career with the Air Force and even received a Congressional recommendation to attend the Air Force Academy. But it was a time of deep racial divisions and his dream was soon deferred when his high school refused to release his academic transcripts.
But as fate would have it, Holland met a college professor during a track meet who helped him, sharing a list of colleges with engineering programs.
“Each application cost $25 and I only had $50, so I applied to the first and last in alphabetical order, and was accepted at Union College in Schenectady, NY,” Holland said. He hopped on a bus and headed to college — leaving behind his hometown Michigan with a brighter outlook ahead.
He once said: “I got on the bus to go to Union College [a 26-hour ride]. It was the first time I’d been out of Michigan. That was not the last blind journey I would take, but the first of many.”
Holland shared his experiences as a source of inspiration.
I am not looking for sympathy or a badge for the challenges of my childhood. I share it to provide some context to show, as my parents would say ‘what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger’,” Holland once said.
This tenacity stemming from a racially-charged childhood, served as a catalyst that helped catapult Holland to the top as a well-respected corporate exec. He was also a big advocate and supporter of Black executives in corporate America.
In fact, Holland himself served on several corporate boards. They included Carver Bancorp, Lexmark International, Inc., Neptune Orient Lines, YUM Brands, among them. He was a corporate director and managing partner of Essex Lake Group. His business acumen efforts helped him grace the cover of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine. Holland too was a close friend of the late Earl Graves Sr., the pioneering founder of BLACK ENTERPRISE.
In the education space, his stints includes serving as chairman of board of trustees Spelman College and a trustee at the Atlanta University Center.
Holland was born in Albion, Michigan in 1940, the third of five children. Neither of his parents were formally educated, but they insisted that all their children get a good education. He once told Mark Lowery of BLACK ENTERPRISE, “My dad knew more about the law than I’m sure most lawyers know.”
While Holland was still young, his father contracted tuberculosis and died.
“Essentially, I was the man of the house,” Holland told Lowery.
“My mother was our rock. Fulfilling his parents’ education wish, Holland went to on to attend Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.
The family has established the Barbara J. Holland and Robert Holland, Jr., Trust focused on advancing minority educational achievement and STEM activities. And a memorial service will be announced at a later date.