There are some days – as I’m reading about the latest scandal, shooting spree, or stalemate in Washington, for instance – when I wonder if and how we as a nation and a society are going to survive. On days like this, I truly worry about the fate of our country and the world.

There are other days when I see such exciting signs of promise and potential that it’s all I can do not to jump up and cheer out loud.

Last Friday was one of those days.

I spent the day at the U, attending the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. My friend Tabitha had been asked to take part in one of the programs, and I joined her in making a day of it. It was heartwarming and encouraging to see different programs and activities that students from kindergarteners to college seniors were taking part in, as well as events for people of all ages and interests.

What I found most inspiring was the keynote address by Nobel Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus, who started the microcredit industry by lending $27 of his own money to several women who needed money to buy supplies for their modest businesses, and who were being gouged by loan sharks in his native country of Bangladesh. No collateral, contract, or interest was involved, and the women all repaid their loans to Dr. Yunus. He then “reinvested” his funds by continuing to lend money to poor entrepreneurs who needed a modest sum of money. His venture eventually became the Grameen Bank, which was founded in 1983 and now lends the equivalent of $1.5 billion US dollars a year to entrepreneurs too small or poor to qualify for a traditional loan. The repayment rate is almost 100% in virtually every city and country in the world where Grameen Bank operates, including New York City right here in the States.

Where do you start in praising or promoting something like that?

You can call attention to the personal compassion and generosity of Yunus for those first loans he gave out from his own pocket. You can marvel at the unbelievable repayment rate or the fact that there is no collateral or interest required. Or, you can simply admire and appreciate a man who originally set out to help others and who eventually developed and defined the concept of “social business,” one whose purpose is to help people in need, and whose profits all go back into the program itself, rather than the pockets or portfolios of owners and investors.

It’s the kind of premise that most people scoff or roll their eyes at. They would say it’s naïve. Unrealistic. Impossible. Or for bleeding-heart do-gooders. But Dr. Yunus is making it work. He’s made it successful. And he’s changing the world in the process.

Perhaps the most important thing he’s doing is inspiring the rest of us. To follow his lead. To see where there’s a need and to figure out what we can do about it. To start small and grow from there. To have faith and to trust – which are related to each other but aren’t exactly the same thing.
What I’m most grateful for is that he’s encouraging all of us to change the world, in whatever way it’s in our power to do. And he’s showing us that we can.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on March 14, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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