At the Westmont President’s Breakfast Feb. 28, Muhammad Yunus told inspiring stories about using microcredit to end poverty, captivating a packed room at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree by Hilton Resort. Known as the banker to the poor and the father of microfinance, Yunus believes that credit is basic human right.
“Banks won’t go anywhere near the so-called, unbankable people,” he said. “The banks say that poor people aren’t credit worthy. We have to make banking an inclusive institution. It should be traditionally accepted as a human right because it changes a person’s life.
“It’s very simple: You need a dollar to catch a dollar. If you don’t get the first dollar, you won’t catch the next one. And that never happens for millions of people.”
The breakfast included several upbeat songs from the Westmont College Choir and an invocation from Westmont alumnus Father John Love of Saint Mark’s University Parish. George Leis, representing lead sponsor Union Bank, John Ambrecht, chair of the Westmont Foundation, and President Gayle D. Beebe also addressed the crowd.
Beebe asked, “What allows millions of people over thousands of years to see abject poverty and simply accept it as a given? What causes a solitary individual, who has mastered complex economic theories, to feel utterly helpless and unable to meet immediate human needs and yet decide one day to do something to help?” He noted that Yunus’ time as a Fulbright Scholar in the U.S. shaped his life and spoke about the importance of providing global education for students at Westmont.
Yunus, who earned a Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal and the U.S. Congressional Medal, created Grameen Bank in 1976. Focusing on lending to women, who represent 97 percent of the borrowers, the bank has achieved a high payback rate, more than 98 percent. Although other banks have called Yunus’ success a fluke, he has replicated the achievements around the world, including in the U.S., in New York and Los Angeles.
“There was always an explanation why it couldn’t be done,” he says. “Because our minds are made up, if you see an exception, you reject it. You think that what you see and what you know is the perfect knowledge that you have.”
He stressed the importance of educational institutions in this process. “It’s important what we teach our students so we can keep their minds open,” he said. “It’s not a place where we seal the mind up.”
Yunus jokingly says he looks to conventional banks for advice, and then does the opposite. “They give to the rich, and we give to the poor. They give almost only to men, so we have focused on women. They want to work in the city center; we make sure we go to the remote
places. The word “grameen” means village.
He says that providing affordable loans and creating new business brings him excitement.
“Money is a very powerful incentive, but I disagree that money should be the only incentive,” he says. “Making money generates happiness; the more money you make the happier you get and the more successful you feel. So, to make other people money is a super happiness.”
Yunus has also excelled in other business areas, creating cataract surgery clinics, nutrient-filled yogurt for Bangladeshi children and opening Haitian restaurants that serve locally produced foods. “Anytime I see a problem I create a business to solve it,” he says. “Since there are lots of problems, I create lots of business. And behind each business I’ve created, there is never the intention of making money for myself.”
Instead, Yunus creates self-sustaining business models where the money generated is put back in.
The Westmont Foundation and local businesses have sponsored the President’s Breakfast for nine years, promoting discussion of significant issues in the community. This year’s lead sponsor is Union Bank. Gold sponsors include Axia, Chronicle Family Offices, Davies, Hub International, La Arcada, Lindsay and Laurie Parton, Matt Construction, Northern Trust and V3 Corporation, with special thanks to Rabobank. Noozhawk is the media sponsor.