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Arindam Chaudhuri, Editor-in-Chief, 4Ps B&M Chief Consulting Editor's Desk
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A.Sandeep
Editor, 4Ps B&M
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Meet the father of 'Impossible Economics'
forty years back, none would have imagined that a village boy-turned teacher of economics could don the hat of a nobel prize winning-social entrepreneur and improve lives of millions of underprivileged poor around the world. not even muhammad yunus himself!
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“I would describe myself as stubborn. As an entrepreneur and as a leader, I have always believed in starting small business enterprise, creating a strong foothold and growing gradually to meet the evolving needs of the people living in rural areas. Frankly, I do not believe in starting big business enterprises and reach a stage where I am not able to manage even one efficiently the way I want to.” – Muhammad Yunus, January 12, 2013, in an interview with my office

It was fifteen years ago when I met Muhammad Yunus for the first time in New Delhi. We had decided to have lunch together with a few of my colleagues after an education seminar in the morning. During our conversation, the blue kurta pajama-clad gentleman didn’t come across to me as a made-for-profit-making businessman. He was just another nice individual, pleasant to talk to. Yet, he wasn’t conservative either in his approach. Everything he spoke to me to explain his entrepreneurial work and motive of travel kept resonating with two words – poverty and unemployment. Clearly, at that time, I had quite a shallow understanding of what Yunus’ model for mitigating poverty and unemployment could do globally. And then again, Yunus wasn’t a celebrity star people, or I, would wish to know deeply about.

The world during those times centred around Fioravanti adorning alpha-male CEOs, hyperactive about profits, cash flows and growth. Why would this commonly dressed man chatting with me matter anyway? And why would anyone wish to discuss poverty and unemployment over a nice, sunny lunch? Yet, there clearly were signs even then... signs which I should have seen, but missed.

Then, his fifteen year-old Grameen Bank-tagged microcredit facility had spread to 21 nations including India, China and others across Asia and Africa. The Grameen Bank he had founded employed 12,628 people. It had disbursed loans amounting to $2.22 billion to 2.3 million borrowers. And the number of branches had already crossed the 1,100 mark. But, the world still didn’t know him well. I didn’t know him... actually, not well enough.

Much had changed when we connected again ten years later in the fall of 2008 for a formal interview I wished to take of him. By then, Prof. Muhammad Yunus had become a Nobel laureate, and replicas of the Grameen Bank model had started operating in more than 100 countries. His Grameen Bank had grown into a time-tested model, with 2,500 branches spread around the world (including US, where the first Grameen Bank branch opened in New York), having disbursed loans amounting to $7.6 billion to 7.7 million individuals! And to talk of his limitless vision as a social entrepreneur, by 2008, his brainchild had grown from being a tool for those in need of personal financial credit to a not-for-profit family of enterprises that included entities like Grameen Trust, Grameen Fund, Grameen Communications, Grameen Energy (Shakti), Grameen Education (Shikkha), Grameen Telecom, Grameen Knitwear and Grameen Cybernet. Not hard to imagine, if the for-profit business tycoon Li Ka-shing Li had found a match in Asia, it was Muhammad Yunus. What the Hutchison Whampoa Group was to Hong Kong, the Grameen Group had become to Bangladesh. [To quote two examples: Grameen Cybernet is Bangladesh’s largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) and Grameen Telecom has over 100 million subscribers across 68,000 villages in Bangladesh therefore reaching out to over 66% of the country’s population!]

 
But by January 2013, when he again gave an interview to my office, he was no longer the operational head of Grameen Bank. He had been forced to resign as the CEO by the government of Bangladesh in March 2011, which did not even grant him the position of a non-executive Chairman (as Yunus had requested). He however continues to carry on work as a social entrepreneur, and is an active participant in Grameen ventures around the world.

The legal battle that led to the ousting of Yunus isn’t important. Knowing why eleven years back, at the age of 60, when Yunus had volunteered to resign as CEO of Grameen Bank, the government asked him to stay on isn’t too. What is important is what makes Yunus a cult entrepreneur, which he will always be. He may not be a common name in the corporate rumour mill. He does not command a strong identity amongst stock traders. And he may not have raked in millions of dollars as most entrepreneurs deservedly have over the decades. But you could take his name in the same breath as of those successful entrepreneurs who have changed the lives of millions of underprivileged individuals. And it all began on a humid summer morning of 1976...

After receiving his PhD in Economics from Vanderbilt University in 1969, Yunus started teaching at the Middle Tennessee State University. In 1972, when Bangladesh was declared an independent state, Yunus decided it was time to fly 10,000 miles eastwards and rebuild what was a nation torn by revolution and starving for education. Within months of his homecoming, he found himself heading the faculty of economics at Chittagong University. The struggle that led to his becoming a social entrepreneur is well documented in his book Banker to the Poor. In 1974, during a time when he was teaching advanced lessons in economics, he found that his paper theories had not a single solution to alleviate the pain and sufferings gifted to thousands by the famine that struck Bangladesh. Economics gave him no answer to why thousands starved to death. He tried to ignore the emaciated people who moved about on the streets of Dhaka, but the more he did, the more their numbers grew. And the famine worsened, making him feel all the more hopeless about what he taught within the four walls of the university!

“Old people looked like children, and children looked like old people. Nothing in the economic theories I taught reflected the life around me. How could I go on telling my students make believe stories in the name of economics? I needed to run away from these theories and from my textbooks and discover the real-life economics of a poor person’s existence,” he writes in his book. Mismatch between economics and poverty grew over time, and in 1976, it called for the first move from Yunus that kindled the fire of social entrepreneurship in Bangladesh. Call it divine intervention or whatever, but that famine actually brought good news for 40 million people (the count of Grameen’s microcredit borrowers today) at the cost of a few thousand lives. It gave birth to the Muhammad Yunus I write about.

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