Nobel winner Yunus speaks at Tech

The IMPACT Speaker Series kicked off on Aug. 26, 2010 with a presentation by Muhammad Yunus, the social activist and economist who started the Grameen Foundation and won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

Having recently authored his third bestseller, Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism that Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs, Yunus gave a presentation at the LeCraw Auditorium in the College of Management building and an overview on what people can do to design a new system that is both self-sufficient and beneficial to society.

The IMPACT Speaker Series has worked since 2002 to bring major business leaders from various industries to help give advice to students in areas ranging from leadership to entrepreneurship and even philanthropy. Working with the Bangladesh Student Association, the series booked Yunus this month to give advice on building sustainable philanthropy based on his own personal successes.

Yunus’ lecture primarily consisted of speeches, anecdotes and business experiences, eschewing a PowerPoint in favor of a more casual approach. He began by talking about his early life as an economist who studied on a Fulbright Scholarship at Vanderbilt University. He then worked as a professor in Bangladesh, until he believed that the standard economic theories he taught were not relevant to the poverty that was around him.

“[Economists] believe all human beings care about is money. People suffer so much for so little money,” Yunus said.

He attempted to alleviate this problem with an idea that earned him a Nobel Prize in Economics: the concept of microcredit.

Microcredit is the issuing of small business loans, usually in small amounts totaling tens of dollars, that would allow the people to start their own businesses. Yunus experimented with this process using the villages until he found a system that worked.

He attempted social reforms on a local level as well, loaning money to women and empowering them to start their own businesses and become educated. After his early successes and failure to convince major banks to follow his method, he started his own loan organization, the Grameen Bank.

“My advantage was that I could say anything I wanted. I tried to do little things… I must do things each day to make myself useful. In a way, that village was my university,” Yunus said.

The event itself was free and fully booked, with many students having to sit on the floors.

Yunus said that if people can design devices as powerful as cell-phones and laptops, they are capable of fighting poverty as well.

“He said some cool things like loaning to both [the rich and poor]. I liked when he discussed the cellphones,” said Casey Mann, second-year CM major.

Yunus eventually shifted his focus from his early success with microcredit to his new, bigger project: social business. This is a new paradigm that is meant to shift the focus of profit-driven business to a business focusing on helping the less fortunate. By being both politically free-market and culturally communitarian, this new system is meant to bring the best of both worlds.

According to Yunus, the social businessman gathers capital through the profit-driven model and then uses it to fund the social enterprise, which then sustains itself through a bare minimum economic profit. This approach combines competition and altruism into one package.

Yunus brought up examples of his own success in this endeavor. He brought up his recent business with the yogurt company Dannon. The company made a deal to produce tasty, nutritional yogurt at a low affordable price for village children. The children can receive all the nutrients they need by subsisting on this cheap yogurt alone.

Yunus encouraged students to take up entrepreneurial arms and start their own social businesses as opposed to simply taking jobs at large corporations.

Yunus closed his speech on the note that he hopes there will be even more philanthropists in the future who can create ideas much greater than his own. He stated his belief that poverty could be wiped out in the next generation, expressing the idea that the future will contain “poverty museums.”