BOSTON— Last Thursday, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, gave a talk titled "Social Business—New Models for Providing Sustainable Services to the Poor" before a large audience of students, faculty, and staff in Burden Auditorium at Harvard Business School (HBS). Yunus, an economist who once taught economics at a university in his native Bangladesh and who is widely known for his work in developing microlending and establishing the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983, discussed his recent efforts, which focus on building social businesses and healthcare initiatives in Bangladesh. The event was hosted by the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative, the HBS Healthcare Initiative, and the Harvard Innovation Lab.
Yunus spent a full day on the HBS campus, meeting with a host of faculty and students. Early in the day, he discussed some innovative social business ideas with senior faculty affiliated with the School's Social Enterprise Initiative. He then attended an undergraduate Harvard College Social Entrepreneurship class at the Harvard i-lab, followed by an animated meeting with HBS students interested in social enterprises and social entrepreneurship.
Speaking with great passion about his commitment to social business, Yunus defined it as, "A self-sustaining business model that is designed to tackle social problems, without regard to making a profit." Living in Bangladesh, confronted by a vast array of social struggles and challenges, he considered not knowing all the answers to be a blessing in disguise. "When you don't have all the answers, you are not bound by your conditions," he said. "You explore new solutions and leap at innovative ways to help people, guided by your values." An example of one of the many social businesses he has created is Grameen Phone, which has brought cell phones to poor Bangladeshi women in rural areas. Currently, there are 80 million total cell phone subscribers, and Grameen Phone, now the largest company in Bangladesh, controls 60% of the market share. He also talked about the importance of measuring impact and customizing business models to tackle social problems head on, without being driven by an impulse to make profits. "When I stand by other human beings and help them, that is when I feel the most alive," he said.
Yunus also explained the advantages of partnering with large multinational corporations such as Groupe Danone and Adidas to do good for large numbers of people, tapping into the resources and networks that these companies bring to the table. Matt Lee, a doctoral student at HBS commented, "I appreciated that Professor Yunus articulated a very specific vision for a 'social business' as a privately owned business that pursues social goals without paying out any returns. But I was also inspired to learn that he doesn't discourage others from experimenting with different models that employ business and markets to improve society. It's a reflection of the state of the social enterprise field. We've learned some things about models that work, but we're just beginning to understand what is possible."
Yunus is the author of Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, and Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing Needs. "Having read Banker to the Poor in a high school economics class, I was delighted to meet Prof. Yunus," noted Christina Kelleher, who is pursuing a joint degree at the Harvard Kennedy School and the MIT Sloan School of Management and who served as co-chair of the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference. "His work on microfinance and social business over the last 30 years has created a field that is having a transformational impact on social problems around the world. His energy, ideas, and commitment to using business to transform poverty are truly inspirational."
About the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative
Since 1993, the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) has applied innovative business practices and managerial disciplines to drive sustained, high-impact social change. The Social Enterprise Initiative acts as a catalyst for creating social value by serving as a focal point for the creativity and energy of its worldwide community. These efforts have manifested themselves in a number of areas, ranging from the participation of approximately 90 faculty members in social enterprise research and teaching to the creation of over 500 social enterprise cases and teaching notes. Courses that focus on social enterprise are embedded into the MBA curriculum and HBS Executive Education program offerings, reflecting a real-world blending of business and social issues. Beyond the classroom, the Initiative offers career development and community engagement programs designed to support students and alumni engaged in the social sector. For more information, visit: www.hbs.edu/socialenterprise/.