Jason Cohen '96: Healthy Snacks Creator Gives Back to Support Entrepreneurs

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Jason Cohen

Over the past 15 years, Jason Cohen ’96 has become a successful entrepreneur in the snack food industry—creating and selling snacks that are both healthy and tasty. Jason attributes his resolve to become his own boss to an introductory course at the Smith School of Business, when his professor predicted that more students from his generation would forsake traditional business jobs and instead start entrepreneurial endeavors.

After graduating with a degree in marketing, Jason embarked on a successful stint in the insurance industry while evaluating potential business opportunities. In 1999 he co-founded Mamma Says Biscotti, an Italian version of the Chinese fortune cookie. Calling it the education of a lifetime, he quickly experienced the ups and downs of launching a new venture—but passion and hard work paid off. After selling that brand for 4x revenue in 2005, other “better-for-you” snacks followed—including Veggie Straws, Pita Bites, and Multi-Grain Crisps, under the flagship brand Sensible Portions.

In 2015, the same year that Jason co-founded his latest venture, Halen Brands, he realized a financial windfall after the IPO of SkinnyPop—a partnership that he had entered in 2013. Jason was now in a financial position to pay it forward to organizations that had impacted his personal and professional life, including his alma mater. Jason initially thought he would make an outright cash gift to the University. However, after discussions with the Office of Gift Planning, he realized he could make a larger impact and significantly reduce his tax obligations through a charitable lead annuity trust.

In a charitable lead annuity trust the donor transfers cash, securities, or other financial assets to a trust for a set term of years. During its term, the trust assets are invested and the trust pays a fixed amount annually to one or more charitable organizations.

When the trust ends, the remaining principal goes back to the donor or whomever the donor designates. Jason opted to create two lead trusts totaling $1M, with $400K designated to a trust to benefit the top-ranked Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Smith School.

The tax deductions received by the gifts allowed Jason to offset his additional income from the IPO and pass along significant assets to his heirs free of gift and estate taxes. With investment growth in the trust assets, the trust will deliver an income stream worth more than $600K to the Smith School over the next 20 years.

In addition to his generous financial commitment to the Dingman Center, Jason is investing his time to help and encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs. At the third Annual Rudy Awards, which honors and recognizes the Smith School’s vibrant community of entrepreneurs, Jason presented the Jason and Jamie Cohen Entrepreneurship Fund Award—whose winners received a cash award to continue building their business. After the event he met with the winning team, creators of FroDoh Desserts, to offer advice and to answer any questions about launching a new venture. Jason was also featured on Bootstrapped, the Dingman Center’s highly popular podcast featuring founders, investors, and serial entrepreneurs, where he spoke about the ins and outs of food start-ups.

“My partnership with the University has really been mutually beneficial. While I am delighted that the payments from the trust will help advance the mission of the Dingman Center, working with the next generation of entrepreneurs keeps me invigorated and always thinking one step ahead,” said Jason. “In addition, the students are a great testing ground for new products that Halen Brands may help launch.”

Jason resides in Northern New Jersey with his wife Jamie and two wonderful daughters, Jordan and Hailey.

If you are interested in making a planned gift, contact our staff at giftplanning@umd.edu. There are many ways to make a planned gift. Let professionals in the field help determine what will work best for you.

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