Muhammad Yunus Urges Grads to Think for Themselves

Nobel laureate wants more social-minded entrepreneurs

The San Diego Union-Tribune, June 11, 2016

Don’t get a job.

“Use your creative power to do more than get a job,” said Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank. “The job is the end of creativity.”

Yunus, the keynote speaker at the all-university commencement ceremony at UC San Diego on Saturday, has referred to jobs as “the tyranny of employment” that kill creativity and are based on an artificial economic system.

Not that he is against work or capitalism. Yunus and Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for creating microfinancing, or small loans without collateral, that helped impoverished people around the world start businesses.

Yunus, who turns 76 on June 28, is still actively involved in the work as chairman of the Yunus Centre, a think tank in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that is focused on social businesses that work to alleviate poverty.

During his trip to San Diego, however, his focus was not on uplifting the impoverished, but enlightening the educated.

“Use your creative power to do more than just take care of yourself,” he said in an interview. “There’s a wide world waiting for you. The power that you have inside of you is unlimited. Even if you want to make use of it just for yourself, you only use a fraction of it. So why do you take care of yourself, and at the same time take care of the world?”

Yunus said he believes young people are looking for something meaningful to do, but often can’t find it.

“Everybody’s telling them, ‘Go out and get good grades in school, and get a good job in a good company,’ and nothing much beyond that,” he said. “They don’t have any structure of how they can relate themselves to the rest of the world.”

As the founder of Grameen Bank — the name means “Village” in Bengali — Yunus has dedicated much of his life to helping people improve their own lives.

The roots of the bank go back to 1974, when Yunus was a professor of economics at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh. When his country was hit by a famine in 1974, Yunus said he ventured into a nearby village to see how he could help, and was distraught to see loan sharks taking advantage of people.

“I thought I could do something,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I lend money myself so they don’t have to go through loan sharking?’”

The amounts he lent were small, often just $3 or $5, but he eventually was tapped out. Yunus went to a bank for help.

“They said, ‘That’s not a bank’s job, to lend money to poor people,’” Yunus said. “I said, ‘That should be a banks’ job. Why do you lend money to people who already have money? You should be lending money to the people who don’t have money.’ They laughed and said that’s not how banks work.”

The bank finally agreed to give small loans to poor people after Yunus said he’d guarantee them, but as the number of clients grew the bank backed out. Yunus began work to form his own bank in 1976, and Grameen Bank finally opened in 1983.

The venture proved that lending small amounts to poor people was not the risk traditional banks believed, as the repayment rate has been around 97 percent, Yunus said.

The bank has grown to have 2,600 branches and 8.5 million borrowers. It has spread internationally, and Grameen America is headquartered in New York, which has eight of the country’s 18 branches.

The U.S. branches have served 65,000 borrowers, all women. Worldwide, women make up 97 percent of the the bank’s loans.

Besides giving loans, Grameen has promoted businesses that make a positive impact on society. In one example, Yunus said a solar program that brought affordable energy to 2 million Bangladesh homes inspired other businesses to provide solar products, which brought power to another 2 million homes.

Yunus said he wants more graduates today to find similar ways where their work can help others while enriching their own lives, and he cautioned them against taking jobs where the will become robotic and have their creativity suppressed.

“Become an entrepreneur,” he said. “Create your own business, and make something happen.”