Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank has made it possible for women across Bangladesh to grow their tiny businesses, recently made an appearance in Rome, Georgia. He told an eager Floyd County audience the story of how Grameen Bank got started to address a need for startup funds, and how he later moved on to address other problems in Bangladesh such as malnutrition and the lack of electricity and clean drinking water.
Grameen Bank was created without a profit mission. It addressed a social need by giving interest-free loans (microcredit) to tiny businesses, who paid off their debts completely and on a regular, often weekly basis. Today the bank has over 25,000 employees and provides loans to 8.4 million borrowers. It is profitable and distributes dividends to its owners, the borrowers. And now it has branches across the United States to help alleviate poverty in the developed world too.
Dr. Yunus didn't stop with banking. He saw a need for electricity in Bangladesh, in areas where families had only kerosene lamps for light after sunset. Again not seeking profit, he found cheap solar panel and battery solutions to sell to families at the cost of a few years' supply of kerosene. After three years they would have electricity at no cost at all, and would be free of the toxic effect of breathing in kerosene. Still, it took quite some time to convince a handful of wary first buyers, and for the business to take hold among their friends. Today it can claim more than 12,000 employees and 1.5 million homes bearing its solar panels.
Similar solutions were found to address malnutrition, this time in partnership with French yogurt maker Danone, and unclean water, in partnership with another French company, Veolia. The Grameen family of businesses also covers the areas of telecoms and education. And to finance social business, Dr. Yunus has social business funds operating all over the world. In Georgia, there is a "Yunus Creative Lab" to help with ideas.
Dr. Yunus believes his model for social business can and should be replicated widely. Here are his tips for those interested:
1. Don't be a job seeker, be a job creator. Dr. Yunus notes that a rising number of highly educated university graduates is coming into a working world that does not offer nearly enough good jobs to match. When young people ask him where they can find a job, "I say getting a job is an old-fashioned idea, just forget about it," he recounts. Instead, he offers no-interest financing to back their entrepreneurial ideas.
2. Focus on a problem. Think big, like he did. Focus on unemployment, or lack of infrastructure, or education. In your small way, you can fix it. Be aware of your ability to fix big problems. "The young generation today is the most powerful generation in history, because of technology," says Dr. Yunus. "They need to be aware of the power they have, as individuals. Then they can pose the question: what use can I put this power to? They can become someone who has done somthing for the world."
3. Define a small sliver of the big problem that you can solve first. Bring 5 people out of unemployment. Bring 3 people off of taxpayer-funded welfare.
4. Let go of the whole idea of profit. If you focus entirely on solutions to your problem, and you are not looking for a profit margin, you will find cheap materials, not expensive ones. You will be surprised at how much costs come down and creative tools and ideas (and volunteers) appear to help.
5. After you've solved the first little sliver, scale up. If your tiny solution works, it will probably catch on naturally. You will be able to replicate it easily, others will replicate it, and one day a systemic shift will have occurred.
Dr. Yunus is excited about the future, because he sees young people interested in values other than money. He plans to participate in a meeting in Atlanta in November 2015 with other Nobel laureates to discuss peace, and he'd like a big turnout of youth to join, "to envision the future, and how we can build peace," he explains. He has learned, apparently, that anything is possible.