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Cheryl Saban Ph.D. Headshot

In the Presence of an Angel

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Every once in a while you get an opportunity to walk in the presence of angels. I recently experienced one of those moments at a luncheon my husband and I hosted for Nobel Peace Laureate, Professor Muhammad Yunus - the venerable economist and microfinance guru from Bangladesh. Though I don't live under a rock, and have been aware of Dr. Yunus' amazing work for some time, listening to him speak again simply reinforced my belief in miracles. This is a man who is changing the world -- boldly, stridently, peacefully, simply, in tiny bits, one micro-loan at a time.

Dr. Yunus eloquently recounted the story of the inception of the Grameen bank -- the bank he and a few like-minded friends formed in Bangladesh to rectify what he saw first-hand as an undeniable discrepancy in the economic pecking order. Yunus realized that banks did not lend money to the people who really need it - the desperately poor. He decided to do something about it. "It's not people who aren't credit-worthy," he said, "It's banks that aren't people-worthy." So, he dug into his own pocket and began to make small loans -- extremely tiny loans -- without collateral, lawyers, or paperwork, to Bangladesh's poorest citizens. His first foray into micro-finance amounted to his giving $27 to each of 47 people, which essentially allowed these individuals to pay off their debts and be free. Free of debt -- free to get on with the business of becoming economically independent. What a concept.

Dr. Yunus has reached a kind of Brothers Grimm fairytale status. While in childhood fairytales, it was Rumpelstiltskin who wove straw into gold; in real life Dr. Muhammad Yunus spun twenty-seven dollars into billions. His ideas and programs have helped transform the lives of some of the poorest communities on the planet. The Grameen bank he founded now has about 7 million poor borrowers. The idea of micro credit has been replicated in over 100 countries. The people who receive these loans, and by the way, 94% of them are women, use the money to raise themselves and their families out of devastating poverty. 98% of these desperately poor people pay their loans back. Yunus has seen life-altering progress. He told us about a woman who, upon receiving her tiny loan -- called him an angel. He said, "If I can be an angel to someone by giving them $27, then think what I could do with $50!"

Dr. Yunus is a man who dreams big, and asks only that we dream big with him. He encourages entrepreneurs to wrap their heads around some of the most fundamental problems facing society -- poverty, obviously being one of them -- and to come up with creative, out-of-the-box social solutions. An example of such expanded thinking is his new Social Business Enterprise platform that he's rolling out with several companies, including DANONE foods. This particularly innovative collaboration plans to build very small community-centered yogurt factories in impoverished neighborhoods. It must be small so that local animals can be used, and so that transportation and refrigeration are minimized. The goal is for the children of the community to receive healthy yogurt to eat. As I mentioned before, Dr. Yunus isn't averse to dreaming big -- he has even asked the research and development team of DANONE Foods to come up with an edible cup to hold the yogurt. "These poor people shouldn't spend their limited resources on something they must throw away, so the cup the yogurt comes in must be edible, and nutritious too."

Throughout his talk, Dr. Yunus glowed with enthusiasm and optimism, and was an inspiration to us all. He is clearly energized by the changes he has helped bring about, and by the possibilities that still exist. We would be wise to follow the Professor's lead. As the assembled lunch guests listened to Dr. Yunus describe his vision to eradicate poverty in our lifetime, I think we all knew we were in the presence of an angel. And since it feels very good to be around someone like that, most of us are ready to follow him wherever he goes.