Editor’s note: New contributor Priya Pingali joined Acumen Fund in October 2008 as a Portfolio Intern. She earned her B.A. from Brown University, where she studied Economics and International Relations. Prior to joining Acumen Fund, Priya spent time working with child victims of sexual exploitation in Bogota, Colombia.
By Priya Pingali
Last Tuesday night, Rob Katz and I had the privilege of attending a talk by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, hosted by NYU’s Stern School of Business and its Berkeley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Not surprisingly, the hall was packed with students, faculty and professionals, but very luckily, we were offered a couple of reserved seats right up front! One of the original pioneers of social entrepreneurship, Yunus and the Grameen Bank are shining examples of how businesses designed to serve the poor can have a profound impact on the lives of millions.
The stories of Grameen Bank (and the other businesses founded by Yunus) are clearly well known, but I would be surprised if anyone had walked away that night without a revitalizing sense of optimism, if not pure awe and admiration. Yunus’ journey began in one village in Bangladesh, with no plan except for the idea of lending $27 to a group of 42 people. Today, the Bank has about 7.5 million borrowers, 97% of whom are women. It manages over $1 billion in small loans, lending $100 million per month, and is currently making it possible for 34,000 students to enter higher education with loans and scholarships. Among his other ventures is Grameen Phone, the nation’s largest phone company and employer of 300,000 telephone ladies, and a solar energy company that currently sells about 8,000 solar systems a month. Yunus has also dedicated his efforts to the eradication of night blindness in Bangladesh by selling fortified vegetable seeds.
In a soft spoken yet powerful manner, Yunus challenged the audience to remove our “profit-maximizing glasses” and to regard making money not as the means and the end, but as the means to a social end. Admittedly, he seemed almost to be preaching at times, but judging by the standing ovation and roaring applause received, he had inspired the room of future leaders and entrepreneurs to reject the traditional (and outdated) trade-off between creating successful businesses and serving the poor.
I was personally moved by his emphasis on how insignificant the differences between all humans are. Hearing this at a time when the entire world, it seems, is yearning to believe once again in the possibility of collaboration, I was reminded of the importance of working to eradicate poverty, not just for the sake of reducing inequality, but in service to the idea that everyone in our world deserves the same chances in life.