Meeting Dr. Muhammad Yunus – my inspiration to go against the grain and make a difference

On the exact opposite side of the globe from home, I find myself in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the headquarters of Grameen Bank. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to have been invited to Grameen Trust’s 56TH International Dialogue, and today I met the father of microfinance himself, founder of Grameen Bank, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and one of my greatest inspirations, Dr. Muhammad Yunus.

When Dr. Yunus enters the room, everyone stands in admiration. He just smiles humbly and asks everyone to sit. He greets us with humility, like an old friend. After giving us a briefing on the current direction of Grameen’s growing family of Social Businesses, everyone crowds around him like the legend he is for an autograph, photo, and a few minutes of his sage advice. Actually meeting him in person was such an unlikely dream less than three years ago when I saw him on the Daily Show…looking back I can hardly believe it! When I approached him, he places his hand on my back as he finishes his conversation with a participant from Sudan, showing in his kind way that he sees and cares about me, a stranger. Though his presence is huge, his stature seems smaller, gentler in person. He signs my copy of his book and we chat about the political situation in Honduras. It turns out that president Zelaya’s wife is also a big fan, and he had been in the middle of negotiations as to how a Grameen replication program could be started in Honduras when Zelaya was exiled. Of course, we’ll now be keeping in touch to see what I and Global Brigades can do to help Dr. Yunus move forward in Honduras with or without Zelaya.

If it weren’t for Muhammad Yunus and believe it or not John Stewart, I probably would not be where I am today: fulfilling my dreams, living and working to alleviate poverty in rural Honduras. The only way to even begin to describe the magnitude of this encounter for me, is with the story of how I came to be the Global Business Brigades Country Director in Honduras…

I had always wanted to be helping others in developing countries (particularly where my heart belongs in Latin America) with the general idea of joining the Peace Corps or something similar. But life and family commitments prevented it, and I found myself instead with a big house in suburbia, a car, a business, and a good job as a project leader at General Electric. I was living the “American dream” but it was never my own. Every year I was getting further away from the person I wanted to be and the life I wanted of international travel, adventure and working with the poor. I was surrounded by conservative middle-aged engineers and family who almost had me convinced I was irresponsible for wanting to “throw my life away” for some “dead-end, low paying job overseas,” as they saw non-profit work to be.

My turning point came November 2006, humorously enough from an episode of the comedic news spoof, The Daily Show with John Stewart! He had a short interview with this gentleman from Bangladesh who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize regarding his concept of “microfinance”. It made perfect sense to me: giving the poor the resources they need to pull themselves out of poverty, it followed one of my favorite Chinese proverbs: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and feed him for a lifetime. Microfinance was the perfect hybrid solution to put to good use both my business mind and my desire to make a sustainable impact in the fight against poverty. I immediately went out and bought and read Yunus’ books Banker to The Poor and was hooked – I had to get involved. I ate up every book on the subject I could find, interviewed experts and attended various seminars to teach myself as much as possible. Seeking the best way to make my career transition I found Global Business Brigades on Idealist.org, sent in a letter of inquiry, started volunteering and about 6 months later accepted the opportunity to move to Honduras and develop the microfinance component of GBB full-time. I quit my job at GE, sold my house, my car, gave away my furniture, packed what was left of my previous life in one 5×10 storage unit and 2 suitcases, said goodbye to my family and moved to Honduras to share an apartment with about a dozen other idealists, for a mere volunteer stipend. It was the best decision of my life.

We now have many different exciting developments in our Global Brigades programs allowing university students and other volunteers to take part in truly teaching communities how to fish. And to make sure we’re doing things right, I’m here in Bangladesh, learning from the best, and meeting the man who inspired me to completely flip my life upside down. Who knows what next big turning point in my life Dr. Yunus may inspire!

Who or what inspires you? I’ll state it again, taking that leap of faith to go against conventional ways and follow my dreams was the best decision I ever made.

Watch the 2006 interview of Muhammad Yunus on the Daily Show here:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-november-16-2006/muhammed-yunus

Merrilee

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