An early morning start and wet weather could not keep more than 700 people from attending a sold-out presentation Friday by international icon Muhammad Yunus at the ninth annual Westmont College President’s Breakfast held at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.
The pioneering Yunus founded Grameen Bank in 1976, inspired by the idea that credit is a basic human right in his quest to help end the struggles of the poor by making fair loans to those lacking good credit or the capital to start businesses in an effort to improve quality of life.
Grameen has loaned more than $8.4 million to poverty stricken borrowers, and Yunus’ banking model has led to more than 250 institutions in nearly 100 countries setting up similar micro-credit programs.
These efforts in economic empowerment and social business have resulted in Yunus receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. Congressional Medal and the U.S. Presidential Medal, making him the first recipient since Martin Luther King Jr. of all three prestigious awards.
Yunus also accepted the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Social Entrepreneurship in the fall for his efforts to give people a chance and the ability to succeed by developing a sustainable framework to empower the poor.
Introductions from John Davies, chairman of the President’s Breakfast Committee, followed a welcome by John Ambrecht, Westmont Foundation board chairman, and three songs by the Westmont College Choir.
Davies spoke of Yunus’ humanitarian ethics and contributions to society.
“He is proof that one man can work to change the world, and we are thankful for his servitude to end world poverty,” Davies said.
During an invocation, the Rev.John Love of Saint Mark’s University Parish encouraged the crowd to pray for students from SBCC, Westmont and UCSB, who are in the process of learning and forming their young minds, asking God to “touch the hearts of young people and that they always turn to you in their hour of need.”
Westmont’s goals for the gathering are to bring proven leaders together for an insightful discussion of significant and pertinent issues and the impact on the local community.
George Leis, representative of lead sponsor Union Bank, shared the emotions that Yunus brought to the large group of attendees when he presented a special award to the honoree.
“You know Dr. Yunus, when I graduated college I wanted to change the world. I was blessed that somehow banking chose me as a profession,” Leis said. “You see a career in banking allowed me to change the world one client at a time.”
Leis went on to emphasize the global impact that the effort of Yunus have had for people in need when given the opportunity.
“The Nobel Committee noted that ‘lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty.’ Dr. Yunus, you found the way!” Leis said.
After earning a doctorate in economics from Vanderbilt University and becoming a professor at a Bangladesh university in the 1970s, Yunus became disillusioned with the finance-driven model of success and the plight of the poor in Bangladesh.
“Money has become an obsession. They imagine human beings are all selfishness. All they do is serve themselves,” Yunus said. “I contest that because I feel that human beings are not money-making robots.”
He said he could not turn away from the poverty that he saw in streets and the loan sharks who were taking advantage of the less fortunate — immortal practices that he deemed as “a sign of slavery.”
Yunus said he decided to reach out to people and strangers in need, giving his own money out as a loan.
“My ambition was to make myself useful to one person even for the day,” Yunus said.
The impetus for starting Grameen Bank was “not preplanned. It was formed out of an action of desperation,” he said. “When you are desperate you jump. I never thought I would ever become a banker.”
He cooperated with conventional banks to obtain loans to lend money to people and learned the business practices and revised a technique and a revolutionary concept — banking without collateral, or Grameen Bank.
“One of the basic principles that I learned is that people should come to the bank but banks should go to people,” Yunus said.
He went on to reproach the universal banking ideology that states impoverished people are “unbankable.”
“We have to make banking as an inclusive institution,” he said.
Yunus created dozens of self-sustaining companies in Bangledesh, from affordable hospitals to colleges for women, providing nutritious food to families and children from impoverished villages, and installing solar energy to 1.5 million homes in 16 years.
“When I see a problem, I solve it,” Yunus said. “Behind every business that I created there was never any intention of making money for myself. Every penny that I make goes back into the business.”
Yunus emphasized the social business model of having a for-profit business that is reinvesting its profits into social issues.
“You don’t have to solve the whole problem,” he said. “If you can solve a tiny piece of the problem, you can plant the seed towards a solution.”
Leis summed up the atmosphere and feelings of the potential for positive change that permeated the room.
“Dr. Yunus, from one banker to another, thank you for changing the world on a scale that this banker never dreamed possible,” he said. “I am humbled and honored to stand by you and thank you for everything you do.”