Nobel Laureate lends advice

Muhammad Yunus shares his vision of "Creating a World Without Poverty" with a receptive Hendricks Chapel crowd.

The man of the hour strolled down the aisle shaking hands and posing for pictures with the astounded crowd as he approached the stage. This scene may sound reminiscent of a Hollywood red carpet or political rally, but the star Tuesday night wasn’t a celebrity — he was an economist.

Muhammad Yunus, a world-renowned Nobel Peace Prize winner, has that effect on people.

Audience members sat elbow-to-elbow in the Hendricks Chapel pews to hear Yunus recall his journey.

“People looked at me like I was an angel,” recalled Yunus about the reaction to his first loan — of less than $30 — to poor people in his native Bangladesh.

 “I never thought I was doing any grand things, just little things here and there,” Yunus said.

Behind Yunus’ soothing voice and serene demeanor lies a rebel. By turning the conventional banking system and business model on its head — doing away with collateral, credit checks, legal contracts — Yunus invented a new economic concept called “social business,” in which the objective is to help others, not turn a profit.

After witnessing a devastating famine in Bangladesh, Yunus decided to abandon his normal life as a professor of economics. He walked out of the classroom and began a new education on the streets by seeing how poor people lived. The teacher was now the pupil.

“The problem is so difficult, but the solution is so simple,” Yunus said.

His answer? Lend money to underprivileged people so they can start their own moneymaking businesses and escape poverty. But there was one major obstacle: Banks weren’t exactly jumping at the chance to throw cash at beggars.

The overflowing audience listened to the slight man in an earthy-brown tunic and pants as he described the birth of Grameen Bank — which translates to “Village Bank” in Bangla — and watched his business go from lending $27 to $100 million per month. The poor can be trusted, Yunus said, and the numbers back it up. Loan payback rates are at almost 100 percent.

Yunus said Grameen Bank has implemented social business to provide clean water, shoes and nutrient-enriched yogurt to children through joint ventures with funding from companies like Dannon, Adidas and others.

He further addressed how social business could aid the recent U.S. banking crisis and troubled healthcare system.

“Making money is a part of us, not all of us,” Yunus said.

Replace your “profit-maximizing glasses” with “social business glasses” and realize wealth is not the only measurement of success, Yunus said.

Syracuse University graduate student Sonal Patel heard his message loud and clear. Patel came to listen to Yunus after learning about him in a sustainability course during her undergraduate years.

“I do think it’s very idealistic,” Patel said, “but it’s working now, and he’s giving a lot of hope to a lot of people.”

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