A Life Making Ice Cream & Defying the Status Quo: Robyn Sue Fisher at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

So September 27th, 2009, I parked my wagon on a grassy knoll in Precita Park in San Francisco. On that wagon, sat a milk crate; bungee-corded to that milk crate was the ice-cream machine I’d spent the last two years designing, inventing, and developing. Under the milk crate was a battery pack I built out of an old motorcycle battery, rewired and reconfigured to power that ice cream machine for about four hours on the streets.

To the right of the wagons, sat a tank of liquid nitrogen, and to the left of the wagon, was my cooler, which held the fresh ingredients of the day. I picked up my phone, and I scrolled over to the Twitter app, I tweeted my location, the flavour of the day, and it ended with: “Come and get it before I sell out, or before the cops come.”

Two years after I graduated from this place, from Stanford Graduate School of Business, that was my life. Soon thereafter, I went to our reunion at Stanford GSB. I was talking to a classmate and she’d asked me: “So what are you up to?” and I said, “Quite honestly, I’m selling ice cream on the street.”

And another classmate, who’d partially overheard us, came over and said, “Oh, you’re in Wall Street.” Now that, that was the moment I realized just how far off of the beaten track I had gotten. So how on earth did I get there, you guys? Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll do my best to tell it in about 9.5 minutes. So, let’s rewind. I was four. My twin brother was on a hunger strike because I was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery, and he and I were both absolutely terrified.

To make a long story short, I was physically fine but psychologically scarred because at four, I learned what most people don’t learn until they’re a lot older: that my parents couldn’t keep me safe forever, that there are so many unknowns in this world and in this universe, and most of them are unsolvable. And my mind’s energy when I was a kid spent a lot of time actually trying to solve those unsolvable things and focusing on the “what-if’s” that often consumed me.

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So I found myself grasping onto the things that made me feel connected with the present, and that had the promise of joy, even if joy was only momentary. Naturally, one of those things was ice cream! My mom used to tell me that she and I both had two stomachs, and one of those stomachs was solely reserved for ice cream. I still believe that by the way. I also fell in love with sports at an early age. Not only am I a very very very competitive person – just ask my family – but I also loved the feeling of being in the zone when everything else melted away, except what was right in front of me.

But the thing about sports is that unless you’re good enough to become a professional, and unfortunately I wasn’t because I was too scrawny, unless you’re good enough, sports naturally come to an end. So after college, I found myself in the corporate world, and candidly, in the corporate world, I felt lost and empty. So my mind brought me back to ice cream. If you think about it, ice cream is all about being in the present, and indulging in that moment, and making it the best it possibly can be. In contrast, think about frozen yogurt for a second.

Now, frozen yogurt is all about over-analyzing and sacrificing joy in the present. But ice cream is about the here and the now. Yes! So I came to Stanford GSB, and I dove headfirst into entrepreneurship classes, and I focused on ice cream. I started looking at the back of ice cream cartons. I was surprised at what I found. There were all these ingredients that I could barely pronounce: emulsifiers and preservatives and stabilizers. And I realized: “Holy shit!” Excuse my language, but holy shit! Ice cream is not about the present anymore. It’s being tarnished and contaminated, for shelf-life concerns. It’s not about taste anymore. This was sacrilegious in my world. This was blasphemy! I needed to restore order to the universe!

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I also started becoming a super nerd on ice cream. I studied the science behind it, and a lot of the science of ice cream comes down to ice crystal formation. The gist is that the faster you freeze ice cream, the smaller the ice crystal can be, because it doesn’t have time to grow. And the smaller the ice crystal is, the smoother the texture can be. [The science behind ice cream (Let’s get a little nerdy!)] Enter liquid nitrogen! [Why LN2? Because it’s so damn cold!] Cold, check that box. Liquid nitrogen is actually negative 321 degrees Fahrenheit. So I had this “Aha!” moment: if I could freeze ice cream that cold, then I could freeze it so fast that I could actually freeze it to order in about 90 seconds, and if I could freeze ice cream to order, then I could throw all of those extra ingredients out the window and not worry about shelf life. I could make ice cream about the present again.

So naturally, I started tinkering in my backyard. I started renting a tank of liquid nitrogen from the local welding shop, and I bought a bunch of parts off Craigslist, filters, old mixing parts, and duct-taped them together. Duct tape is my favorite tool. I’d duct-tape them together; I started making ice cream for anyone who would eat it. I even catered a friend’s wedding and business school. And I learned that it’s actually really, really easy to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

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