Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureat, and Sudheer Gupta, professor at SFU Beedie and Director of the Jack Austin Centre for Asia Pacific Business Studies

Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus addressed an audience of more than 300 people at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business at a special event on February 5, 2018. Professor Yunus, who founded microfinance organization Grameen Bank, is the winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, among many other international honours and awards, for his pioneering work in developing microfinance to help people lift themselves from poverty.

SFU Beedie hosted the event at the Segal Graduate School in Vancouver as part of a promotional tour for Yunus’s most recent book, A World of Three Zeros: the new economics of zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero carbon emissions. Speaking with moderator Sudheer Gupta, a professor at SFU Beedie and Director of the Jack Austin Centre for Asia Pacific Business Studies, Yunus described his modest ambitions when he began experimenting with providing micro-loans to women in rural Bangladesh in 1976.

“At the beginning when I was studying it in one village, next to the university campus, I had no expectations that it would have anything to do with the next village. I had no ambition and I didn’t have any plan,” he says. However, as the concept gained traction and word spread about his ground-breaking work, the micro-finance model has been replicated around the world. Grameen Bank is now active across Bangladesh, and has itself expanded internationally, operating 20 branches in 12 cities across the United States.

The driving principle behind Yunus’s work is a core belief that traditional economic systems fail the most vulnerable members of our society. “The financial system has been designed the wrong way,” he says. “The basic principle is that the more you have, the more you can get.”

The result of this traditional system is that the world’s wealth is increasingly owned by a tiny proportion of people: eight individuals own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the world’s population, according to Yunus. Yunus’s response to this was to create Grameen Bank, which rejects accepted notions of commercial success: it exists to help people. “The whole idea is to help people get out of poverty, not an instrument to make money for yourself,” he says. “It is a non-dividend company to solve human problems.”

For Yunus, this distinction between operating to make profits and working to solve problems in society is crucial. “If you mix both [for-profit and social work], most likely you will do less of each.” Instead, his vision is to see people launching social ventures that are designed exclusively to tackle a problem in society, unconstrained by the need to generate profits. Through this type of venture, he sees the potential to eliminate poverty and unemployment entirely.

“You can create a business to solve the problem of unemployment, for example, which is a common problem everywhere,” says Yunus. “You can take five young people out of unemployment by creating a business. It isn’t rocket science; anybody can do that. But you are not taught to think like that, so the government has to do something to bring unemployment down, has to provide welfare for these people. If I take care of five people by creating a business, you do the same, everyone does the same, then there is no unemployment”

Grameen Bank continues to grow, providing loans to support entrepreneurs, making equity investments in ventures, and partnering with large companies to develop social enterprise initiatives. Whether this is in rural Bangladesh or in New York City, Yunus’s philosophy remains the same: “To me, every person is an entrepreneur, so I am not hesitating or looking at you suspiciously. I am excited by your potential, and my job is to help you unleash that potential.”

The event was organized by the Beedie School of Business’s Jack Austin Centre for Asia Pacific Business Studies, alongside SFU Community Engagement, SFU Public Square, and RADIUS.