Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Muhammad Yunus

"I am always optimistic. There is no other way...I am not interested in a person's past. I care only about their future." ~ Muhammad Yunus

Many economists tell us that so long as there is capitalism, there will be poverty. So long as there are "haves", there will be "have nots". Tonight I went to 92Y to see Muhammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank, Noble Prize winner, and an economist who has stood up to the cynics time and time again. The most remarkable thing about him is not that he blatantly defies his peers, but that he defies them, has proven the fallacies in their beliefs through the outcomes of his own actions, and garners the respect of his detractors.

When I consider what it's like to live an extraordinary life, Professor Yunus is the first person I think of. His indomitable will, compassion, love, and concern for others is unmatched, particularly in the financial field. He is my hero so it was with great excitement that I sat in the audience at 92Y waiting for him to be interviewed by Matthew Bishop from The Economist. Yunus did not disappoint. From the moment he stepped on stage, he glowed with goodness.

The more he discussed microcredit and entrepreneurship, the happier I became. I could feel his goodness making its way into my own heart. His calm, charming confidence is something to behold and emulate. I could barely take my eyes off of him.

Then a strange thing happened. Professor Yunus began to talk about how to get started, how to begin building a life that truly contributes to the benefit of humanity. "Make a pact from where you are, now, to help 5 people up out of welfare." He discussed how he didn't try to tackle the whole country of Bangladesh in his early work. He worked with a handful of people in a very small village. And when that seemed to work, he ignored the nay-sayers, as always, and helped a few more people. And encouraged those he'd helped to help others in the same way. Take tiny, tiny steps to help others, and never, ever give up. "That," he said, "is the miracle seed."

It was in that instance, in Professor Yunus's miracle seed comment, that my heart and mind joined forces and took a decided turn. I could feel a physical, mental, and emotional shift within me. At the conclusion of the talk, I ran home, literally. My friend, Richard, is always encouraging me to write to anyone and everyone who interests me. This advice as served me well in the past, so I got home and cranked up the letter writing machine.

On my way back through Central Park, I composed a letter in my mind to a very wealthy businessman who runs a company that has recently set up a very profitable service. I've written to him before, once by name and once anonymously, offering up thanks and suggestions to him, respectively. Today, I asked for his help is using a very, very small portion of the money his service has made to set up a small test of microcredit in New York City, similar to the work that Professor Yunus's Grameen Bank is doing in Jackson Heights, Queens. When I got home, I typed up the letter, printed it, signed it, and stuck it in an envelope. I ran out to the mailbox on the corner outside of my apartment building, and dropped it in. I had to get it written and out the door before I got too scared to send it. So now I'll wait and see if a response comes.

It's an odd thing when we hand over the reigns to our future. When we leave rational thought behind and follow our hearts, it's amazing what we find, what we can accomplish. Professor Yunus closed the talk by telling a story about Dannon yogurt. He kept pushing them and pushing them to develop a yogurt product, in a special edible container, that would benefit the children of Bangladesh. (Half the children who live in Bangladesh suffer from malnutrition.) "An edible container?" they asked him. "Yes, yes, we must," demanded Professor Yunus. He thought they'd be angry. Instead they thanked him for pushing the boundaries of their work. "How can we answer something we are not asked?" they said. Perhaps this businessman I wrote to will feel the same way.

And now the fear is setting in. What have I done in writing this letter? Who do I think I am to go around suggesting that a large financial institution consider taking a tiny slice of their profit during a recession and using it for a microcredit program? And then I smile, and think to myself "I just let my inner-Yunus run free." If I'm scared, I must be doing something worthwhile. What could our world be like if we all did just that? What if we suggested the impossible and then went for it?

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