Muhammad Yunus

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Muhammad Yunus is the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Grameen is a leading microfinance organisation that makes about 7 million loans to mostly women borrowers in mostly rural areas. Yunus has founded a string of Grameen spin-offs including Grameen phone with telenor of Norway. Most recently this has included a joint yoghourt making venture with Danone. He is also working on solar power and other joint ventures.

Profile by Liam Black in Guardian Professional, 12 Sep 12

Muhammad Yunus: the model social enterprise leader?'

Budding social entrepreneurs could do worse than look to the founder of the Grameen Bank for leadership guidance

Muhammad Yunus has been in the glare of the media's spotlight for all the wrong reasons over the last two years. The Bangladeshi government's none too subtle attempts to effect a de facto nationalisation of the Grameen Bank fare sadly all too well known. No one knows where it will all end and I fear we are looking at a bad outcome unless there is a change of heart by the Hasina regime.

Yunus is no saint, has made mistakes and no doubt will make more. Arguments will continue to rage about the complex impacts of microcredit and the pros and cons of the for-profit and non-profit models. His hard line on the definition of a social business is not for everyone.

But his achievement is immense. Eighty million people, about half the population of Bangladesh, are users of Grameen services. Whether urbanites downloading their apps on to their Grameen phones or the street beggars who can borrow interest free, Yunus's social business group reaches into all corners of his country. Now that, my social enterprise friends, is what you call mainstreaming.

Bangladesh is a very different place to the UK, where I write this and all social entrepreneurs journeys are unique but there are some leadership lessons we can all take from Yunus as we continue to find ways of creating a socially enterprising world.

Consistency and resilience

The Grameen group is incredibly diverse. Microfinance, savings, insurances, eye hospitals, mobile phones, solar energy, high nutrition yoghurt. The list goes on and on. But two things have never changed. The rejection of charity as a solution to poverty and the drive to create financially viable enterprises, owned by the poor themselves, based on high-volume, low-margin products and services. In a land with no public sector grants to keep the salaries paid or super-rich hedge fund mangers dabbling in social innovation, there is little choice but to be inventive when it comes to business models, but Yunus's breaking of the NGO or private business paradigm is impressive.

So, social enterprise leaders, keep the main thing the main thing and pay close attention to your business model.


It has passed into legend that Yunus was told he was mad to lend money to poor people with no contracts or collateral. I love his willingness to start, not waiting for the perfect answer before taking that first step. He is a congenital starter and this is what is needed in a country like Bangladesh where the needs of people are so acute.

"The future of the world will not invented on an Excel spreadsheet, Liam", Paul Bennet of IDEO said to me when we sat with some of Grameen's village borrowers.

Yunus embodies this "let's jump in and experiment because actually no one knows what the solution looks like yet" spirit. As Elvis Presley should have said: "a little less conversation a little more action social enterprise people!"

Scale and opportunism

Not for Yunus the interesting little boutique social experiment. His purpose is to "put poverty in the museums". He wants it big and he wants it now.

Some of his businesses are brilliantly original ideas but others are copied from elsewhere. His superbly efficient and successful eye hospitals, for example, are copies of Aaravind's superb model in India.

Innovation is overrated. Sometimes someone else has the great idea and your job is to execute it brilliantly where you are. The poor of rural Bangladesh don't give a hoot that Yunus didn't invent the care model that has given them back their sight. They are just delighted that their cataracts are gone.

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn said recently: "A first mover is not the first one to launch; it's the first one to scale." That is so true and Yunus is very much a first mover in that sense. Anyone can have a bright idea at his or her computer or social innovation boot camp. Inventing stuff is the easy part. There is no shortage of great ideas. Executing the buggers is the trick that is so hard to pull off. Developing channels to the people who need the service on a mass scale and normalising it – now that's the really difficult bit especially in so-called bottom-of-the-pyramid markets.

Relentless networking and giving people time

Over 30 years, Yunus has created a global ecosystem including heads of state, business leaders, entrepreneurs, opinion formers, grassroots innovators and citizen organisations. And thank God he has. In his hour on intense need, as a corrupt and corrupting government regime seeks to ruin him, his network has been galvanized to action. I have no doubt his enemies would have tried to put him in jail or worse without his allies and friends around the globe as well as at every strata of Bangladeshi society speaking out.

Despite the praise and awards heaped on him Yunus has not become one of those leaders who checks out how important you are before deciding how much of his time you are worth. I have spent many hours with Yunus at all sorts of events and he gives wide-eyed students as much of his time and attention as he does to presidents and chief executives. Many's the late night when I've stood there knackered as he gives yet another 18-year-old career advice. He wont leave a venue – ignoring my frantic watch pointing and finger across the throat signals — before everyone has had their book signed and their photo taken with him. (Oh yes, I forgot that bit – he has somehow found time to write bestselling books.)

Not for Yunus the VIP social entrepreneur "sorry you're not on the guest list" elitism of the kind that goes on at, say, the Skoll World Forum or World Economic Forum.

Great storytelling

Yunus has a great facility with words and is a compelling storyteller and phrasemaker. His ability to use simple language to cut through to the chase about poverty and the structures that oppress people is a mark of that leadership calibre which attracts people to join his mission of eradicating injustice. How prescient this zinger from the early days: "the question is not "Are people credit-worthy", but rather, "Are banks people-worthy?" I use that all the time when I speak to bankers.

Let us hope against hope that the government of Bangladesh does not extinguish the lights of Grameen. But Yunus's legacy is secure. He has inspired millions around the world to rally to the cause of the poor. His 2006 Nobel prize acceptance speech is well worth a read: "We get what we want, or what we don't refuse … we wanted to go to the moon. We went there. We achieve what we want to achieve. Let us join hands to give every human being a fair chance to unleash their energy and creativity".

Liam Black is co-founder of Wavelength and president of the Friends of Grameen.