Nobel recipient to students: Use business to solve problems
Microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the bank he founded, headlined Elon’s 2012 Convocation for Honors.
Muhammad Yunus never intended to change the world years ago when he first loaned the equivalent of $27 to poor villagers in Bangladesh. But as he soon discovered, solving smaller local problems can have a ripple effect that leads to solutions for larger social ills.
Yunus, joint winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with the bank he founded three decades ago, delivered the annual Convocation for Honors address on April 3.
His talk, titled “Building Social and Humanitarian Businesses,” encouraged students to create businesses as a way to solve problems, whether they be related to health, poverty, education or technology.
“If you believe that you can do it, it can happen,” Yunus said. “Each of you can change the world. Not as a group or as a class. Each of you!”
Yunus is the author of three books, including Creating a World Without Poverty, which was selected as the Elon University 2011-12 common reading. Yunus has received several American and international honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the World Food Prize.
He spent much of his time on stage talking about his personal story of returning to Bangladesh from the United States in the early 1970s once his homeland gained independence. As a college professor there, it troubled him to step outside the classroom and be greeted by extreme poverty.
Yunus also noticed that many poor people worked hard. They simply lacked access to capital and to loans. As he spoke with villagers, he heard stories of loan sharks who made repayment difficult.
When Yunus approached established banks to see about loans for the poor, he was told that villagers weren’t creditworthy because they had no history of repayments. Yet they were unwilling to help the villagers by offering them a chance to begin that history; instead, Yunus guaranteed the loan, and the seeds of what would eventually become Grameen Bank were planted.
“Fate has strange turns you don’t expect,” Yunus said. “I never dreamed in my life I would become a banker! … And I’ve always specialized in doing tiny things. I never get into big things.”
Yunus founded the Grameen Bank in 1983, establishing a microcredit system that allows the rural poor to secure small loans for self-employment and to establish credit without requiring collateral. In 2006 he and the bank jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts “to create economic and social development from below.” As one of the world’s leading pioneers for social business, he uses “the creative vibrancy of business to tackle social problems” that include poverty, pollution, a lack of education, and inadequate health care.
A driving philosophy behind the bank, he said, was to meet the people where they are. “People should not have to come to the bank,” he told his Elon audience on Tuesday. “The bank should go to the people.”
Other social businesses that Yunus has had a role in starting include Grameen Danone, which produces enriched yogurt for children in Bangladesh, and a project with Adidas to help sell shoes to impoverished regions at under one Euro per pair.
He was quick to note that the only way to abolish poverty is to change the way institutions are structured. “If we want to get rid of poverty, we have to change the system,” he said. “The same system that created poverty can not get rid of it.”
An economist by training, Yunus traveled to the United States on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1965 and earned his doctorate from Vanderbilt University five years later. He taught briefly at Middle Tennessee State University before returning to Bangladesh where he served on the economics faculty at Chittagong University for nearly two decades.
He currently serves on boards of advisors and boards of directors for several international organizations. He is also the chairman of the Yunus Centre, an organization aimed primarily at promoting and disseminating Yunus’ philosophy around the world.
More than 250 institutions in nearly 100 countries today operate microcredit programs based on the Grameen Bank model.
Convocation for Honors serves as an annual spring event to recognize Dean’s List and President’s List students, the faculty, graduate students, the upcoming graduating class and members of the Elon Society, the premier annual giving group at Elon.
Elon University President Leo M. Lambert also recognized on Tuesday the new inductees to the Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Omicron Delta Kappa honor societies.
In addition to the academic recognitions, the 2012 program included the formal introduction of the Lori and Eric Sklut Emerging Scholar in Jewish Studies. Geoffrey D. Claussen, assistant professor of religious studies, was introduced to the campus community by Alison Morrison-Shetlar, dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences.