Recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, Professor Muhammad Yunus is the founder of the first institution who offered microcredits, and the father of the social business movement – two concepts that have now been replicated in most of the countries around the world. Over the last 40 years, Muhammad Yunus has created a large network of experts, now present in over 150 countries, helping to solve social issues and improving the lives of millions of people through social business in all the major industries.
In 2018, he created the Yunus Sports Hub to put this network at the service of the sports sector and help governance bodies, right holders, event organizers, federations, clubs and other sports-related organizations create meaningful changes in people’s lives. For his diligent and extensive work in the sport for development field he received the Olympic Laurel at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
In this exclusive conversation with WFS Digest, he shares the importance of football in the lives of many people around the world and how athletes, clubs and any individual can use it as a tool to make a difference in society.
WFS: Can you tell us your personal story ? What brought you to start the microcredit movement, and social business?
Professor Yunus: I never thought I would get involved in lending money or that I would be known for being a banker… I wanted to be a professor at university. However, the circumstances of poverty in Bangladesh pushed me in that direction. The independence from Pakistan in 1974 was very important and was celebrated by us all, to the point I even resigned my job in the United States where I was teaching at university.
When I got back though, there was famine everywhere, you would see dead bodies on the street, there wasn’t enough food to survive, and that made me think about the subject I was teaching in the classroom which was economics and how it was meant to help me solve this problem but the truth is I had no idea how to handle it.
So, I thought I pursued the completely wrong subject, and that it never gave me any ability to face the issues that I see every day. I became totally disenchanted and frustrated. I felt like I wasted my time learning economics, which is a useless subject, and that it was no good for people.
So I started to think, “What do I do now?” “Have I wasted my time?” “How do I become useful to people?”
Economics made me useless, I wanted to be useful. So I had an idea: Why don’t I go to the village just outside the university campus, and see if I can be of help to anybody, even for one day. I don’t know how to do it. But gradually, maybe I will learn about it, by being with the people and seeing their problems. So that was the beginning of me, going to the village and meeting people, seeing if I can do something to make myself useful one day and one person at a time. So that led me to many things.
Along the way I got stuck with the problem of loan sharking. People needed very small amounts of money, $5 or $10, and loan sharks would give them money in exchange to take up everything they possessed. That’s terrible. And people get totally, totally dislodged from the situation.
So, how could I protect people from the loan shark? One idea that came to my mind was “why don’t I lend them the money myself?”
Then I thought that if I lent them, the money, people did not have to go to the loan shark. So I told people: “If you need money, don’t go to a loan shark, come to me and I’ll give you the money”. And that was the beginning, I started giving these tiny loans out of my pocket because I had enough money in my pocket as I was coming from the United States; it was no big deal for me.
I enjoyed it and people were extremely happy that I could help in this way. Then I thought, “why don’t we create a separate entity to do this in a more regular way?” So I thought of creating a bank for the village to do the same thing, which led me to create a bank called Grameen Bank or Village Bank. I had no idea that Village Bank would work outside this village to other regions. But it soon became very popular and expanded to the point that it got to operate at the national and even international level. And step by step, as it grew, it became known as microcredit.
Nothing is impossible for human beings. Nothing.
WFS: You were saying that people were actually very happy, obviously because they got the help they needed. But turning that around Professor Yunus, what did you learn about people? What was innovative about this?
Professor Yunus: Two things, people at the policymaking level are stuck with their ideas, and it seems they cannot move from their ideas. When I challenged the banks and asked why they didn’t lend money the way I did, they said the bank cannot lend money to poor people because they are not creditworthy. They were blaming people for their failure.
I told them they should see it the other way round: people should be blaming you for not being “people-worthy.” You are not designed as a people-worthy organization. That’s why they went in the wrong direction.
I kept saying that poverty is not created by the poor people, it is created by the system we built, the wrong system that we built. So, if you want to overcome poverty, you have to change the system.
WFS: Do you consider yourself a rebel or troublemaker through your initiative? And what were the challenges you faced to make it a reality?
Professor Yunus: Disbelief. People think that the people you are lending the money to will never pay you back because they’re not creditworthy and they will not know how to use the money. And my explanation was: As long as it works, I will continue. If there is any trouble, then I will stop and see what is the trouble. Just because you’re saying that there’s trouble up the road, I will not stop. I will figure out a way to handle that.
And, since I never faced that trouble, we kept going.
The truth is I took the whole idea of “collateral” out of the banking system. It’s like overcoming gravity. As long as you have gravity, you cannot leave the soil, you cannot live there. The day you overcome gravity, you fly. And the sky’s the limit. And space is the limit now because you overcome gravity. Now I can go anywhere I want.
The banking system couldn’t believe that it could work without collateral, they thought it would only work for a few people, but it worked with millions of people, and I have no personal contact with those millions of people.
So, it was not something rebellious in the sense of destroying them as it was offering them the option. Many accepted that and tried to get involved with offering microcredit.
The day you overcome gravity, you fly. And the sky’s the limit.
WFS: How did you become involved in sports and what power do you think it can hold during important events such as the World Cup, the Olympics, Women’s Euro… ?
It definitely happened with the World Cup. I’m not a sports person, I’m not a fan of a particular club or anything, I just watch like everybody else without being committed to a particular club, and so I enjoy it. But what struck me year after year, is whenever the World Cup came, Bangladesh changed completely. I had no idea there were so many football fans in the country, so one indication that you’ll see as soon as the World Cup is coming, every house in Bangladesh will be putting a flag of their favorite country. Some villages were totally dedicated to one country.
What struck me was the emotions. When a team was defeated, the whole village cried. They don’t even know where the country was or who the guys were, but they had an emotional tie and they knew every player by name and their stories. This is emotionalism. So I thought, why aren’t we using this power for social purposes? If we use this global power of sports, not just football… we need to use this power to make social changes. I started to give examples of how sports can be used for social purposes.
I was then invited to address the Olympic Committee and when the Brazil Olympics were being held, I was invited to Rio and I was named torchbearer for the Olympics. So I was very happy that finally, I got some role in sports. I never had any role in sports before but then I was named torchbearer and I was asked to address the whole Olympic Committee, and people loved it.
I was also invited to support the French team to help them create what I call a “social business” and they loved that idea. So we worked on that and explained that to the International Olympic Committee. Finally, Paris was selected as the host for the 2024 Olympics which was an amazing feat. I even got an award myself, the Olympic Laureal in Tokyo 2020. So that was a big recognition for me and something I never imagined I would achieve!
WFS: Could you share some more insight on your social business program in sports that you run and your involvement with the Olympics?
Professor Yunus: It’s a very simple thing. The question was, how much money was spent for each Olympics? The answer I got is that normally for each Olympics the budget was about 7 billion euros. So I asked how they were going to spend it and they said that they were going to use it for construction of roads, stadiums, swimming pools, catering services and services data. I said that’s fine, you do that. But 2-3 weeks after the Olympics have finished, nobody stays there, it will be empty. Then they auction it all.
I suggested that’s where we’ll make a little change. This time, in Paris, we’ll have the Olympic Village, not exactly for the Olympic athletes to stay for three weeks only, we will use this village for the homeless people right in the middle of Paris, in St. Denis.
So this will be for homeless people who cannot afford housing. After the Olympics, they will move in and this whole village will be handed over to the homeless people where they’ll have their marketplace, they will have their schools, they will have their sports grounds, just like your traditional village.
People can now have a decent life. St Denis will be a tourist attraction for the whole world when before it used to be a slum with all the poor people living there.
Another thing is catering, the catering service should be designed differently. Ask the social businesses to come forward and provide catering services and train them if they don’t have much experience.
In sum, what I said to the Olympic organizer is that they are spending 7 billion euros and not a single one should be invested without a social purpose behind it. It is not a heart-shattering idea. This brought a lot of people together because everybody wants to see things happening in their own country, in their own people, and so on. So this is what the social business Olympics is all about.
Ultimately, we want to achieve the 3 zeros mission: Zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero carbon emissions.
WFS: How does this social business differentiate from charity as there are so many social organizations that are using the power of football for development?
Professor Yunus: Conventional business is always focused on making money. That’s what our textbooks teach, that maximization of profit is the goal of the business. Charity is something where you give away your money, you’re not looking for profit or anything, simply you want to help some poor people, some unhealthy people… So you don’t expect the money to come back.
You simply spend the money so that other people get the service. So we tried to create something in between out of necessity because we don’t have endless money to give as a charity. In conventional business, you not only want the money back, but you also want more returns from it. I had no intention of making personal money or personal profit. So there are three categories now. One is the maximization of profit, and another is no profit at all. In between, the costs that are incurred come back.
This is what social businesses do, when you spend 7 billion euros on the Olympic Project, that’s 7 billion euros where you have used a social business mechanism, this money will come back to the business. So I said no, we want to retain the quality of the buildings that we made, because it’s for a purpose, it has to serve the purpose and money has to come back so that we can regenerate the money and take care of its maintenance.
So that is the difference between social business and charity.
I request you to feel the power that you have and ask yourself what use are you going to give it
WFS: We want to take the opportunity to go back to football. When some people talk about football they think about the star players, the mega projects, the superstars, etc. However, at World Football summit we are of the belief that football is actually built by anonymous heroes. So, we believe there are people who even if they don’t reach stardom, still live football with passion, and they still carry on the flag of the sport. There are also a lot of charities and businesses that work around sport to create social good, and for us, those are the kind of people that are actually closer to the real world at the end of the day.
So, what would be your message to those star players who have the visibility and the power to influence those anonymous heroes?
Professor Yunus: First off, I would congratulate them. It’s a fantastic achievement to get to the top and have millions of people around the world listening to you. I would encourage you to remember, that you came all the way to the top, but there are many at the bottom.
So one comes to the top, but hundreds of thousands remain at the bottom. And the career of an athlete is limited in time. And after that, it’s over, no matter how brilliant you are. When their sports life is over, they will start some businesses using the money they have earned and looking to earn a return on their money.
But until they take the money back, this is available to the entrepreneurs so that they can transform their business models. That’s the beauty of social business, I have not given it away completely, but I’m making it available for you to use it.
I keep saying that making money is happiness, and making other people happy is “super happiness”. This is the way you do that, this is one role you can play and now that you’re superstar, what you say is very important. You can inspire the whole world depending on what level of superstardom you’ve got.
There are professional footballers who are helping change the world, and Marcus Rashford is one of them. For this reason we have chosen to name one of our WFS Awards after him, dedicated to those athletes, executives or organizations who have helped drive societal change.
So this is it, your word can bring out so many ideas in people’s mind to make things and global things, big things which our leaders have not achieved, but you can achieve it because your voice is so powerful. So use this power. You know you have the power. I invite you. I request you to feel the power that you have and ask yourself what use are you going to give it.
Because if you don’t choose what you use the power for, it will be all wasted away. You’ll be selling watches, you’ll be selling glasses, you’ll be selling something which doesn’t make much difference in life. So you decide, then people can help you decide your words and so on so that it has a maximum impact. And people, particularly young people, are the ones who will be designing the next world. You can have a tremendous impact on young people’s life.
That is what I would say to them.
WFS: Sports is probably the greatest generator of content in the world. Likely because of that, people who work with the stars, or the clubs, have a huge responsibility, because they will have a huge voice. What would your message be for the hundreds of thousands of fans that do not have a voice or have not made it to an elite level?
Professor Yunus: I always come back to them, because that’s where my intention is. I urge them to don’t give up. Just because you couldn’t make it doesn’t mean that you are a worthless person; you’re a very creative person, you’re a very strong person, and you have tenacity and commitment.
And that’s how you survive in this world. In a very tough world, you did that, and now you have to add other things into your life. This is not the end of life. This is one phase of your life and now you prepare for the next phase of your life. In the next phase of your life, use that commitment to turn yourself into a social business entrepreneur, because we will be arranging their social business funds so that you can get the money and invest it. But you design what kind of social business you want to do, which will help people overcome challenges like poverty, access to water, proper sanitation, health care, or whatever you choose.
Since you are in sports, you already know you already have your own followers. They may not be in hundreds of thousands or millions, but you have some followers who love you, appreciate you, they love to see your picture to see your play. So encourage your fans, inspire them and make it happen.
Become an entrepreneur yourself, and particularly you make yourself a social business entrepreneur. It is about transforming the world that you have around you. And that’s what we can do. You have a voice in your community, and use this voice to make sure you leave a completely different kind of group of young people who will be following you, who are still trying to be sports people, they want to follow your steps.
All human beings are entrepreneurs, simply some people pursue it and some don’t. We are encouraging you to pursue it. But you have to have your mind fully committed to it.
That is how we help through the Yunus Sports Hub, to bring those ideas and get the facilities to make that happen. So that financing is not a problem for you.
WFS: It’s simply amazing the power that we as humans have to influence the people around us. But businesses also have that influence, that power as well. With regards to your experience with the Olympic Committee that you mentioned before, is there any message that you want to share with the businesses that are working in football?
Professor Yunus: Yes, football and any sport. There are many, many business and commercial organizations that do a good job supporting their workers. But you can parallelly have a social business initiative, you can create a social business venture capital fund, so that all those “failures” in pro sports, don’t have to give up.
You can show them that they don’t have to give up, that they have another route and can become entrepreneurs, and that we will help you do it as a social business.
So the big businesses can provide can create social business funds, so that these initiatives can be launched, the training can be provided and equity can be provided. They can even become joint venture businesses, with the sports people and my company.
This is an idea for those who want to become somebody who’s useful to the world, and make a contribution, and come back and say: this is what I did in my life.
WFS: What would your message be to all those people who are using football for good?
Professor Yunus: Football is a symbol of life but does not deny the rest of my life. Try to be helpful to those in need within your community.
WFS: What is the legacy that you wish to leave behind?
Professor Yunus: I want to help people understand that nothing is impossible for human beings.
The only thing you have to do is to decide what you want to do and then, get after it.
But most often, we are not deciding, we’re not even paying attention to it. And as a result, we don’t achieve it because we never give thought about it. Do not be taken by the enormity of the problem. Problems can be enormous. But it has a component, it always can be broken down into little pieces, and all you have to do is adjust those little pieces.
And then you have the whole thing done. And that’s how everything starts in life, the million-mile journey starts with one small step.
WFS: Lastly, you’ll be participating at WFS Europe in September. What do you think an event like this can bring to the table?
Professor Yunus: The message is a very simple one. Your commitment depends on your imagination. If you imagine it, it will all come together. So imagining is the most important thing, visualise what is around it, and be part of it.
If we imagine, it will happen. If we don’t imagine, it will not happen.
This interview featured in the latest edition of WFS Digest, our insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practices from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.