By Maria Saporta
Usually when Nobel Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus visits a city, he comes in for half a day to give a talk and sign some books before going out to his next destination.
But when Yunus came to Atlanta last week, he came for the better part of four days.
“This is very special,” Yunus said of his stay in Atlanta after speaking to a standing-only crowd at Georgia Tech’s College of Management. “When I go to a city, I hardly spend half a day, so this one is very special.”
While here, Yunus addressed students and interested Atlantans at Agnes Scott on Wednesday, Georgia Tech on Thursday and the Atlanta University Center at an event Friday celebrating the first phase of the renovation of the Robert W. Woodruff Library.
“Hopefully, these ideas, my books, will lead to discussions around Atlanta and the United States,” Yunus said.
Atlanta has been a special draw for Yunus. He’s having discussions with Emory University on health care issues. He visited with CNN. He was in Atlanta as part of a tour promoting his latest book: “Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism that Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs.”
He believes Atlanta can become a center for social businesses within universities and in local communities. Yunus has many friends and colleagues in Atlanta. There is fellow Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jimmy Carter.
Yunus also is close to Ted Turner and members of his family, serving on the board of the United Nations Foundation. Also on the foundation is former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Atlanta also is home to several important international institutions, such as the Carter Center, the CDC and CARE. Yunus also hopes to return to Atlanta in the near future when he would like to meet with some of the city’s top business leaders.
After all, Yunus is on a mission to rid the world of poverty.
It began when Yunus was a professor at Chittagong University in Bangladesh in the mid 1970s. The poverty in the nearby village of Jobra was extreme, and he realized that people in the village had to pay exorbitant interest rates just to borrow a miniscule amount of money.
That’s when Yunus, working with his students, approached a local bank and offered to be a guarantor for loans to the poor.
“You should be lending money to people who don’t have money,” Yunus, who during his talk at Georgia Tech, recalled the story and what he told the banker. “It doesn’t make sense to lend money to people who have money. The more money you have, the more money you get. If you have nothing, if you have little, you don’t get anything.”
Every micro-loan provided by the bank was repaid in full, but still the bank was reluctant to lend money to poor people. Despite subsequent successes in other villages, the bank became more and more reluctant.
“After eight months of blaming the banking system, I kept shopping around,” Yunus said. “Why don’t we create a bank ourselves. We’ll lend money only to poor people.”
The bank — Grameen Bank, which means the “village bank” in Bengali — now has operations throughout the world. The borrowers of the bank actually become the owners of the bank. And the money gets reinvested in communities.
“We lend out over $100 million each month,” Yunus said, adding that the bank also encourages the families to send their children to school.
In a visit back to one of the villages, he encountered a woman who had earned her PhD and had become a doctor. She was standing next to her mother, who was illiterate.
“Her mother could have been a doctor too,” Yunus said. “Her other could have been a doctor too. There was nothing wrong with her mother. Not only did she not become a doctor, she never ever went to school. Is it her fault? No. Poverty is not created by the person. Poverty is created by the system, by the way we design our society, by the way we design our political structure.”
Yunus has applied his philosophy to creating a myriad of social businesses to help create a healthier and wealthier society to those who are the most vulnerable to illnesses and poverty — clean water, shoes, mosquito nets, etc.
Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Yunus, 70, has been spreading the message that businesses can be agents of social change and social responsibility.
As he travels the world, Yunus hopes to find people and institutions that can join the movement to improve the world. And Atlanta is one more stop along the way.