Participating in roundtable discussion with Dr. Muhammad Yunus

Nobel peace prize laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus and a smiling Evelina Lundqvist.

Many of us have seen his speeches online, read his books or read articles about him – Nobel peace prize laureate of 2006 – banker for the poor – Dr. Muhammad Yunus. The other day I was suddenly invited to meet  this remarkable man in person. Sven Heijbel and Arne Forstenberg of Global focus organized a roundtable discussion commissioned by Bookhouse Publishing at The Hub in Stockholm.

The discussion was kicked off by Dr. Yunus telling the story of how the French dairy corporation Danone and Grameen started the joint venture Grameen Danone to provide nutritious yoghurts to the very poorest people of Bangladesh. I’ve heard this story before and I find it very powerful – Danone symbolizing the big corporation seeking change and finding it in a context where most companies don't dare to persue business – at the bottom of the wealth pyramid – where 60% of the world’s population get by on less than USD 1 or 2 per day – especially without dividend, which is Dr. Yunus philosophy.

The discussion continued with us participants asking questions, alternated with Dr. Yunus stories of the impact of a handful of the nearly 60 businesses, which comprise Grameen. I personally find the joint ventures very exciting – big corporations rethinking their business models to cater poor people through social business. Some examples Dr. Yunus mentioned was Grameenphone, a joint venture with Norwegian Telenor, which is now the biggest mobile telephony provider in Bangladesh (aha – so Swedish Telia was the first partner for this project and backed out!?), Grameen Adidas making shoes affordable for poor people (it took Adidas two years to develop shoes that were that inexpensive!) and Grameen Veolia selling clean safe water to the poor. Dr. Yunus told us how the companies now come to him, and how he for example refused to speak to Veolia for several days until they had a social business model with a price level decent for the poor.

My first question to Dr. Yunus was (of course) connected to our master’s thesis, “What role do you think business angels could play in financing social entrepreneurs’ businesses?” The essence of his answer was that there is capital in abundance out there, and a shortage of ideas ready for investment. As an example he related to a major fund dedicated to social businesses that has been set up in middle and Eastern Europe of which not much has been invested yet.

In answering the other participants’ questions he elaborated on social entrepeneurs' business development. Key for social entrepreneurs to reach out is that they design their businesses creatively. Dr. Yunus underlined that the main question is “How do I design this?” Dr. Yunus used the expressions “designing your business” and “creativity” many times in the conversation – a very relevant combination of words - but also rather unusual, I belive. Dr. Yunus explained further, “If you have some young drug addicts on your block – how can you design a business idea to take them out of addiction?” and referred to an Italian social business working on exactly this topic.

Regarding developing our social businesses he advised us to make a list of the most annoying social and environmental problems we can identify, then prioritize them 1 to 25, where 1 would be the most annoying – and the one we should design a business idea around. In this spirit he added that business idea competitions are great for reaching out to young people to encourage them to develop their owen social businesses. Dr. Yunus elaborated, “You have to be clear about the purpose and benefit of your businesses. Start small and experiment so you don’t loose anything if you fail.”

Just like the eight social entrepreneurs and business angels my study colleague Michael Bauer-Leeb and me have interviewed for our master’s thesis, Dr. Yunus focused on trust being the basis for all business, arguing that you have to build a “reliable network of trust and credibility” around your social business. Another key insight he presented, which I really took to my heart, was connected to finding partners for your social business among regular businesses, “When the business idea makes sense for both of you – then you’ve got your partner”. What he said is really genius in its simplicity, it describes exactly why a regular business would turn down a potential deal – it doesn’t make sense to them. The challenge then lies in modifying the deal together so that it does make sense, or you should keep looking for another partner which can see the sense.

My other question was “What do you think the world looks like in 2050?” Dr. Yunus replied fast that he gets this question all the time, “We can’t image what the world will look like in 2050 – or even 2030, because we can’t transfer our current understanding of the world to the future. What the world will look like in 2050 is pure science fiction today”. As an example of this rapid transition he mentioned landline telephony in Bangladesh in the middle of the 1990’s. “It could take a week to organize a phone call, and when you actually got through you would stand there screaming to make yourself heard not understanding what the person on the other end of the line was shouting to you through the bad connection”. Dr. Yunus pointed out that the world looks completely different today with mobile and Internet connection in the palm of your hand. He mentioned how Grameen is contributing to this change through providing the very poor people mobile phone access through (most often) women setting up mobile call service enabled by micro-loans to buy a mobile phone, which paying customers can rent per minute. Dr. Yunus explained that he also has embraced the digital revolution, “Twitter, Facebook – I use it all!”

Towards the end of the discussion, moderator Sven Heijbel tried to encourage Dr. Yunus to elaborate on his failures – for us to learn from. Dr. Yunus smiled and underlined that there can be many many reasons for a failure and that a solutions which fails in one business very well may work perfectly to solve a problem in another business, and that you can’t really explain why it is like that. He elaborated, “We don’t put the failures on our lists because then people start asking about them instead of all the things we have accomplished.”

One of the last questions Dr. Yunus received was regarding our western consumption focused lifestyle. He stressed that the western world has many lifestyle issues to deal with and even outlined a solution making it easier to challenge consumerism, “Every item should be labelled with a simple warning, like the cigarette packages. Perhaps using the traffic light colours; red, orange and green. Red for hazardous activities like flying, orange for products where impact is unsure and green for things that are ok to buy”.

Dr. Yunus finished the conversation by addressing environmental sustainability, “During your lifetime you should make the planet less dangerous than it was before – or at least not leave a footprint that is greater than zero. But preferably we should all work on making the planet less dangerous for our children than it’s for us.

My strongest impression of the roundtable discussion was how organic Dr. Yunus described everything - there isn't one reason for failure or success - there are many many - and they can he hard to explain; there isn't one argument which will turn all polluting companies into sustainability missionaries - there are many many - perhaps as many as there are people out there - because the offer has to make sense to this particular individual and the organization you are approaching; and the transition to a more sustainable planet is happening as we speak - the questions is only whether it's happening fast enough.

Evelina Lundqvist - - - - - - -

The other participants around the table were Robyn Scott founder of One leap based in London, Swedish-French good gal Estelle Jouber-Westling of The Good Guys, Sebastian Lindström living in Nairobi working on the amazing camel milk project of What took you so long Foundation, Chinese student Yi Yang of Uppsala University, Pioneer of the Year winner Andreas Liljendahl of  World favor and founder of Framtidsboxen Maja Frankel of Frankel & friends. Among others, Paul O’Hara, Director Ashoka Ireland (currently working on recruiting the CEO of Ashoka Scandinavia!) and consultant Anders Bjers representing Antonia Ax:son Johnsons Stiftelse för Miljö och Utveckling and Axtalk were also in the room. Nice meeting you all!

And thanks again to Sven and Arne for the invitation! :)