How often does one really get the chance to see a Nobel prize winner speak? And how often does one get a book signed by one? And most importantly, how many people get to carry around his business card? It’s a great honour.
Two reasons why studies in the USA are worth it – 1) The amazing libraries and 2) the opportunity to hear great men speak.
A few weeks ago, I received a routine email stating that Muhammad Yunus would be speaking at Georgia Tech about Social Business and that he would be available to sign books. I marked the date on my schedule and was eagerly looking forward to his talk.
The talk was set to begin at 5 but I reached at 4, knowing fully well that the auditorium would be packed. I secretly cheered my foresight as I found an empty chair and saw that the hall was pretty crowded around 4:15. Students from the management courses that got over at 4:30 were yet to make it to the hall and I feared they would be unlucky. Sure enough, people started to get folding chairs and started sitting on the floor in the aisles.
Mr. Yunus arrived at 4:55. In the confusion to find seats, most people missed his arrival. Not surprising since he does not look imposing at all. He was dressed in a simple kurta, payjama and waistcoat (might have been khadi) and simple black shoes.
Mr. Yunus started off by saying that he never had the intention of forming a bank. He said, “Circumstances push you and for me those circumstances were the poverty I saw around me in Bangladesh. Elegant theories make no sense when people are dying and I wanted to do something as an individual, not as an economist.”
Mr. Yunus taught at a university which was surrounded by villages. He talked about how the villages themselves became a university for him as he learned so much from them. He came to know about loan sharking. He started off by giving the equivalent of 27$ to around 42 families. This freed them from debt. What was astounding is the amounts which the villagers owed the sharks. 27$ by 42 families is less than 30 rupees per family.
He went to banks and realized that they found his idea of lending money to the poor as crazy. Mr. Yunus told the bankers that their design was completely wrong. Banks lent money to the rich and not the poor and less than 1% of the borrowers were women.
He and his students lent money to the members of one village and the scheme worked. The poor were free of debt and could repay their loans. The banks asked them to verify it at another village, then another and another yet again. Finally Mr. Yunus realized that the banks were never going to accept his vision and decided to create Grameen bank. In his simple but eloquent English he says, “I decide what I want to do. Why should I work to please some bank manager?” Why indeed.
With the scheme starting in 1976, he formed the bank in 1983. 97% of the borrowers were women and the borrowers themselves owned the bank. Mr Yunus says he is just another employee and his business card attests to the same. Simply designed, it says, “Professor Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director”.
The money that is lent comes from the deposits itself. There is no world bank aid or anything of the sort. In spite of this the bank lends around 100 million dollars every month and growing.
He said the bank also encourages the education of children. The cost of higher education is borne by loans from the bank. A large percentage of Bangladesh’s poor are now educated directly because of Grameen bank.
At one point, Professor Yunus emotionally recounted the story of a girl he met in a village and she was helping her mother. He recognized her from years before and asked her what she was doing. She replied that she was a doctor now and she had come to the village just to meet Dr. Yunus because she had heard he was visiting the village. He said he looked at the mother and the daughter and the looked the same and he asked himself why the opportunities the daughter had got, the mother could not. He says, “Poverty is not created by people but by the system.”
The Grameen bank model has been successfully implemented outside Bangladesh in places as far away as Manhattan and the new banking system is all inclusive. No longer are the rich the only ones eligible for loans. Grameen bank has truly changed the world for the better.
Mr. Yunus also talked about how the whole idea of business is wrong. He says, “Everyone enjoys making money. People earn money and they think they are ‘successful’. But this makes human beings robots. Is earning money the only things human beings are made for? We are not uni-dimensional!”
“When economists theorized business, they presumed that humans are selfish and formulated their definitions accordingly. What they forgot that humans can be selfless too.”
“The key to social business”, Professor Yunus says, “is adding the concept of selflessness to business. We are making money because there is nothing else to do. But money cannot be an end. It should only be the means to something. That is where social business comes in and that is where the future lies.”
“When I was young, people would laugh when someone said people could walk on the moon. Today I am saying that poverty can be completely eliminated from this world. Do you really think it is impossible?”
The simple man he is, Professor Yunus chose to conclude without fuss. All he said was, “If happiness is the purpose, then my purpose is served. Thank you.”
Notes taken, lessons learned and book signed, I walked back a little dazed and very happy.