Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microcredit got a message one day from the office of Franck Riboud. Riboud was the chairman and CEO of the Danone Group, a French food conglomerate whose American brand is most familiar to us, I suspect, for the yogurt in our grocery stores and refrigerators.
Riboud had heard of Yunus’ work in Bangladesh creating a banking system that made small loans available to people full of ideas, but too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans to fund them. It began in 1976 when Yunus lent $27 from his own pocket to 42 women in the Bangladeshi village of Jobra. By 2007, the Grameen or “village” Bank had issued over $6 billion to more than 7 million borrowers, with more than 94% of Grameen loans going to women.[i]
Grameen Bank put into action Yunus’ belief that, very small loans could make a disproportionate difference to a poor person. Contrary to the practices of our Western system which is built on the assumption that the more you have, the more you get, Yunus believed, that the poorest of the poor, given the chance, would not only take the opportunity to improve their lives and escape from poverty, but that they would be at least as reliable as other loan recipients in repaying their loans. And he was right. To date, less than 1% of Grameen loans have defaulted, and the system of microcredit has exploded across the globe, even extending to a number of branches in New York City.
It was October 2005 when Riboud reached out to Yunus who tells of the meeting and the handshake that led to the creation of one of the first social businesses. Unlike most of our businesses in the west, organized around the primary goal of making money for its investors, social businesses are created to meet a social goal; they are built around a mission. They pay no dividends. They sell products at prices that make the business self-sustaining. Owners get back their investment over time, but no profits, which instead stay in the business to finance expansion, create new products, and do more good. [ii]
Together they agreed to provide €1 million [euros] to launch the enterprise—500,000 each. Grameen was in right away, but as the weeks went by Danone was unable to provide its half of the agreement.
Yunus began to wonder, but he heard again and again from Riboud that Danone was all in. Weeks went by, and then months. The problem, it turned out, was that their lawyers were objecting. The money they had intended to invest belonged to the shareholders and legally couldn’t be used to invest in a company that would not pay them a dividend.
Finally, Danone came up with a solution. The company added a paragraph to the letter it sent to all the shareholders before the annual meeting explaining that they wanted to start a company in Bangladesh that would tackle the problem of malnourished children. If the shareholders wanted to use part of their dividend to invest in the company, they could sign up and indicate what percentage they wanted to put in. Wouldn’t you know it, 97% of Danone’s shareholders signed up, and Danone ended up not with €500,000, but €35 million.
And then arose another problem. The Danone employees were unhappy. They objected to being left out, so the company gave them an opportunity to donate as well, and that led to another €30 million for a total of €65 million designated for a social business that would make its investors no profit whatsoever.
So Danone finally had its €500,000 and then some, leading the company not only to keep its end of the bargain in its agreement with Grameen, but also to establish a social business fund of over €60 million that it has invested in other non-profit-making social ventures since. [iii]
Muhammad Yunus told this story this past Thursday at Seattle University as a way of illustrating that sometimes we ask the wrong questions. We assume the worst of others—selfishness and greed—and miss the opportunity to tap into the generosity that is in all of us. Yunus’ life work and its radical success has been built on the assumption that we are more than just selfish beings, and all we need are the right conditions, the right questions to tap into our capacity for doing and being good.
That story is a challenge and a comfort to me as we wrestle with these tragic and tense texts for today. Moses takes a hike, and everything falls apart with this nation that seems unable to remember the nose on its face, much less the story of God’s salvation through the waters from slavery to new life. Jesus tells this story of God who is like a king that refuses to let a party go to waste, but gathers anyone and everyone who will come and gives them a place at the table of celebration. Yet all I can do is focus on what’s going on with this strange addendum Matthew has added about a dude who doesn’t have a robe and gets kicked out. Surely Matthew is making a point here, but it may not be the main point. We may be asking the wrong question.
David Rothkopf, author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow makes a similar point as he tries to waypoint us in history. Rothkopf suggests that we may be living through the day before the renaissance. Everything is changing and the questions we ask are incredibly important for our future.
The community—the fundamental building block of a nation—is being profoundly altered by technology, he suggests. We may have much more in common with someone we have a virtual relationship with through Facebook, say, than we do our neighbor. That changes identity. It changes how a community is formed. It changes the relationship between communities and states themselves.
The reason we have the president we do now, he offers, is because somebody, somewhere wrote an algorithm that determined that stories with certain characteristics would appear at the top of a news feed. And those stories end up dominating the public debate and what people believe. So somewhere is someone or a group of people with a tremendous amount of power who are not accountable to anyone in a fundamentally different way of being together has not been anticipated by any system of law.
“I think we have spent the past 20 to 30 years looking backwards at the last threats of the 20th century,” Rothkopf suggests,
[at] terrorism, which … is not really a long-term threat for the world. [Terrorism] represents the extremist views of a few tens of thousands of people among 7 billion… We are looking in that direction at those kinds of threats…instead of a change in the world on an epochal scale, like the fact that in the next 10 years or so every human being on the planet is going to be connected in a manmade system for the first time in history, which means anyone, anywhere can reach out and touch and communicate with anyone anywhere else anytime. And that does change: ‘Who am I? What is community? What is a government? What is an economy? What is money? What is war? What is peace?’ It changes the answer to all of those questions.[iv]
It is akin, Rothkopf claims, to someone in the 14th century saying, well, my mind is really on the black plague or the great schism, and you might not notice that a middle-class is rising or that a poet like Dante is starting to write in the vernacular or that the seeds of the renaissance were cropping up which would, within 150 years, change every form of power and every form of education and every idea we had about society.
If you are a student of history, and you are analyzing the trends that are fact-based, you have to end up being an optimist, Rothkopf suggests. People live longer. They are better educated. There are fewer wars. Fewer people die violent deaths. People are affected by fewer diseases. They are wealthier and healthier.
Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”[v]
Christians, I would suggest, are not optimists as much as we are a people of hope. Our story claims again and again an existence with some coherence, a God who is, in some mysterious way, engaged in history for good, an arc of time that bends toward justice, a spirit among us and within us that has an extraordinary capacity for selflessness and generosity.
And if we are to be the church for this time, we will do well to return to the fundamental questions of this life we live in this world we occupy amidst this culture of God we seek to know and proclaim into what is to come. Who are we? How do we work? What kind of an economy do we want? How do we get meaning out of life? What are our fundamental rights and responsibilities? What kind of society do we wish to live in?
Our attention to these questions in the context of this hope, make all the difference. Thanks be to God.
[i] These stats are drawn from personal notes from a Q & A session with Muhammad Yunus at Seattle University on October 12, 2017 and the Wikipedia article “Muhammad Yunus”. Retrieved October 13, 2017 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_Yunus.
[ii] Yunus, Muhammad. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism . PublicAffairs. (Location 224) Kindle Edition.
[iii] This story is taken from personal notes from a Q & A session with Muhammad Yunus at Seattle University on October 12, 2017 and “Leadership: Muhammad Yunus” in Harvard Business Review, December 2017. Retrieved on October 13, 2017 from https://hbr.org/2012/12/muhammad-yunus.
[iv] See Evan George, “Does it really matter who wins the French election? It might matter more who is running Facebook”, and original interview with David Rothkopf and Warren Olney on To the Point. Retrieved on October 13, 2017 from http://curious.kcrw.com/2017/05/does-it-really-matter-who-wins-the-french-election-it-might-matter-more-who-is-running-facebook.
[v] Rothkopf, David. The Great Questions of Tomorrow (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 38-40). Simon & Schuster/ TED. Kindle Edition.