Muhammad Yunus: Break slavery’s legacy. Don’t ask for a job. Make your own.

My 13 visits to Davos have produced many interviews with some of the world’s rich, powerful and famous. But none was quite like last night’s discussion with the father of social entrepreneurship, Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Feisty and forthright, Bangladesh’s most famous citizen is small in stature but with a gigantic presence. And he makes so much sense. For instance, why does so much of humanity believe they need to ask others to care for them? Why does the education system brainwash people into believing they have to ask for jobs rather than create them? It’s demeaning, he argues, and unnatural. All of us are entrepreneurs, Prof Yunus argues, so why can’t the vested interests in Governments and Corporations just get out the way and let humanity get on with what comes naturally? Muhammad Yunus is the Real Deal. And carries a powerful message for South Africa and other countries struggling to overcome industrial age mindsets that have left them with massive unemployment. – Alec Hogg

How many times have you visited here in Davos?

Many years. I think about 15 years maybe, because I’m on the board of Schwab Foundation. The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship actually began with me. Several years the board meeting takes place during the Davos days, so I come, attend the board meeting and at the same time continue to meet other people here and speak in different sessions.

Your life is inspirational to many people around the world and I was intrigues to see that you’re also very big in social media, more than a million likes on Facebook.  

Yes, at one time I was number three on social media, so people like it, they continue to follow, so I like it, because most of it is young people who follow.

On your Facebook page you say “all humans are born entrepreneurs”. Many dispute that…

Well, to come back to that issue. Are people born to be working for somebody else or born to do things they want? Without knowing anything, probably you’ll say no, people are not born to work for somebody else.  That’s not how it works. When human beings came to this planet, they were not sending out job applications. They struggled, they solved their problems, worked out their way to survive and tried to find a safe place to go to. They showed all the elements of being go-getters, not trying to hide under somebody’s wings. I would say it’s a human DNA to be go-getters and problem solvers which we call entrepreneurship. Working for somebody is a very artificial thing. It goes back to the legacy of slavery – circumstances created in such a way that he or she doesn’t have any other way but to work for you.

Read also: Andrew Fenwick: SA’s saviour – Entrepreneurship. Knows no age, education.

Many humans are conditioned to work for other people, for big corporations.  How do you get the minds to change?

This is a manipulated mindset, because you send young people to school and they put this idea that you have to work hard to get a good grade and a good job. So everybody is struggling – the end result is to have a job.  Who said that they have to have a job? The education system is telling them that they have to have a job. Or parents and the family are saying that they have to have a job. I’m saying that why don’t you give them options? That if you want to have a job, be a job creator. Let them decide what they want. That’s the natural thing. I try to tell the young people that you should be telling yourself: I’m not a job-seeker, I’m a job-creator. This is the most natural thing to do,

We have not created an eco-system for being entrepreneur, because if I come out of the school, and look to start the opportunity of being entrepreneur there’s no financial system which backs me up. The financial system is built for somebody’s who has assets and wealth and everything. They’re serving them, so that they can hire other people. They’re forcing people to work for them, because you don’t leave any door open for them. The education system created that. It keeps on producing workers. I believe human beings are born with unlimited creative capacity – the education system should help them to discover their creative capacity. But instead, the way the education system works helps you to find a job so that you lose all your creative capacity.

A job is the end of your creative capacity, because only a small part of yourself is applied and you start your life working at the very bottom under a tiny boss above you. The design of your life is according to the desires of your tiny boss. You abandon everything that you are. You distort the human being, you continue to adjust yourself because you curtail everything else except what is needed by your company or your business or factory that you’re working for. That’s causes great damage to human being. We should not encourage young people to become workers, because that’s the end of their creative power.

Read also: Ivan Epstein: Small business jobs saviour yet voiceless at Davos.

With Grameen Bank, you started by helping people with small amounts of money.  The problem that one often hear is from young people is that they can’t raise the finance, they can’t get into the game…

We created that problem for them, an artificial situation, it’s not natural.  Artificial, because we took away the opportunities to deviate from going to the factory or the office to be a worker. If we had left the door open he would have chosen things he wanted to do. For example, he comes out of the school with a certificate which opens the door for a job, so he ends up with a job application.  Education should not be ending up with a job application, it should be ending up with a business plan. He doesn’t even have to finish the school to start being an entrepreneur, but needs that certificate if you want to be a job-seeker.  An entrepreneur doesn’t need a certificate, all he needs is the ability to get things done, so that he can start the job… start the work he wants to do, so you need a financial system and the other eco-systems, so that he can do that.

But the system is against the way of thinking.

If you change the system, it works.  Like you mentioned about the micro-credit Grameen Bank.  The Grameen Bank alone in Bangladesh has 8.5 million borrowers, 97% women.  Mostly illiterate women who never went to school, cannot read, cannot write.  This is what the Grameen Bank is all about and that idea spread all around the world imitating the similar thing, so it’s not alone.  The 8.5 million in Bangladesh, are they looking for jobs?  Is that what they did with the money?  Started to put together job applications? No. They created their own business.  That’s what microcredit is all about. You create your own business and gradually step-by-step you go up, because it’s not a one-time loan you’re taking when you walk out. It’s a life-long thing. You continue step-by-step, move up. By any analysis, they’re all entrepreneurs.

Illiterate women in a country like Bangladesh have shown they have the capacity to become entrepreneurs given them the right kind of facility. This has been repeated all over the world for 170 million people.  All of them are entrepreneurs, they’re not job-seekers. So why can’t we repeat it for other people?  If illiterate women can be entrepreneurs, what’s wrong with those who have a degree?  Something must be terribly damaging if they can’t be an entrepreneur. Originally he or she was an entrepreneur. This is demonstrated by microcredit programs, so we want them to school and then the work and say no, I can’t do entrepreneurship, I have to find a job. It’s a system that damages you. In the school you’re supposed to know thyself, that’s what the motto of education is. Now it has become “know thy boss”. You try to find out what kind of company, what kind of boss you’ll be dealing with. That’s demeaning and humiliating and distorting.

Read also: WEF 2016: 4th Industrial Revolution. 5mn jobs, women in the firing line.

You know South Africa well, the unemployment statistics. There is a perception the entrepreneurial spirit has not been unlocked in that country, that the State will look after you.

It’s all over, not just South Africa. Look at Europe. 48% of the young people in Spain are unemployed, youth unemployment is everywhere. In Portugal, in Greece, Italy has 80% youth unemployment in their country. If you go to the South its 70% youth unemployment, so it’s a problem we’ve created by distorting ourselves. Why would a well-prepared young person who has a very good degree, very good knowledge and finished all his work in school, college, university, not do anything? Just sit there? Why, because he said I’m unemployed a word which says I’m under some kind of spell. I cannot function. If you’re looking from outside this planet at this young person, you’ll say is he sick, why doesn’t he do something?  He’s a strong man, creative man, why doesn’t he do something?

He doesn’t because his mind is blocked.  He thinks he has to find a job and he don’t find a job, so just sits around. All these people, the youth unemployment you’re talking about, millions in Europe, they’re under the spell that they cannot function so they’re not going to lift their hands. Yet they could do anything.

Many leaders of states ask your advice on unemployment. How do you suggest they break this evil spell?

I told them how I do it.  I don’t give a theory, I say this is what I do for microcredit this is what I do and their children of this microcredit borrowers and Grameen Bank. We encourage them and we provide them education.  Get them education loan, make sure every single member of this family, illiterate families, do not repeat their history. For the first time in many, many generations this is a kind of backward history.  From now on they’re educated people, literate people and they did it, all 100% of Grameen families, got education.  Got an education loan, they go to colleges and so on.

Did they remain entrepreneurs afterwards? 

No, how could they?  They’re distorted already.  They come out, sit around and complain there’s no job, so then I started talking to them and I started telling them, but who said you have to have a job?  Is it your book that said you have to have a job? Your teacher told you to have a job?  They get very puzzled.  They say it’s an obvious thing that I have to have a job, I say no, I don’t see any obvious thing, somebody must’ve told you that.  I said no matter who said it, I’m telling you this finding a job is an obsolete idea.  It used to be there in history in the previous centuries, not in this new century. So believe you are not a job-seeker, you’re a job-creator.  They get more puzzled.  I don’t have a job now he ask me to create jobs for others.  How does someone do that?  I said, very simple, look at your mother.  How long ago did she join Grameen Bank?

He says maybe 20 years, 25 years.  You remember how she started her life with Grameen Bank?  She was shaking like this when she first decided to join Grameen Bank. She couldn’t believe that she can really use money and when she got her $30 loan, she was absolutely nervous.  How am I going to pay it back? She’s an illiterate woman. She dared to take this $30 and started a business, and paid back penny-by-penny.  Every one of them and then 25 years later we’re talking about it. You were born. You were sent to school by your mother, you got the graduation.  If your illiterate mother could do all this, what good is your education?   Throw it away, go and fall under her feet, learn from her whatever she did.  With education you should be doing much more than she did.  Now you can’t even do the elemental thing that she did.

We needed more organization, so we created a fund called Social Business Fund and tell all these young people of Grameen families, come with the business ideas and some say I don’t have any business ideas.  So, why don’t you go to your mother, your mother has a lot of good business ideas, learn from your mother and then whatever she does after all these years, whatever she has reached, make it ten times bigger.  She knows the ins and outs of her business, why don’t you pick it up, learn from her, and start the business? She’ll be your consultant… in-house consultant and here is the money waiting for you.  All you need is a business idea, tell us and we check it out and we’ll invest in your business.  That’s our job, the money is our job, the idea is your job and work is your job.

In the beginning they’re shaking, but now they’re starting to move.  Hundreds of them come, thousands of them come, continue to take money and we say this is an investment we’re making.  This is not a loan like we gave to your mother. Now I’m your partner.  I give the money as my credit. Your job is to run the business that I own and make it successful and return the money that I gave you, buy back my shares.  When you’ve bought up all my shares exactly at face value, I don’t want to take extra money, extra dollars from you, because I’m a social business.  I don’t want to make money out of you.  Once it’s done, all the shares are yours, you go and do your business.  Next time you want to make it bigger, come back again with another business plan, I’ll do the same thing.

How many businesses have you created in that way?

Last year we did 3 000. This year probably will be about 10 000.

So, all in Bangladesh?

All in Bangladesh, yes.

This sounds like an incredible model.  Is it travelling?

I had a meeting here with the Indian Finance Minister. He said India is using this program for entrepreneurs, has created a bank for them and the few months that the new Government has been in power had more than 100 000 young people running businesses with the money from the bank.

Professor Yunus, this is an incredible journey.  What got you thinking this way?  Was it a spark from divine?

I was not thinking about it. I was like everybody else, I was confronted with problems.  When I see a problem, I try to see a way to overcome this problem and I tried to explain it to people before.  I said look, when I went to school I did my Ph.D., I did all the things that gave me a lot of confidence that I know everything now.  Then I realized when I started working in the village – because of circumstances that I got into – for the first time I realized that what my schooling gave me is a kind of bird’s-eye view.  You fly high, you see a lot of things, because you’re high.  Then you thought you knew everything.  When I started to work in the village for the first time, what I thought I saw was not true, because I made up the stories, because I was not close enough to understand what it is.  So I made up my images out of the things that I saw and we called it knowledge.

When in the village, I see everything very clearly, so I have a worm’s-eye view now instead of bird’s-eye view.  In the worm’s-eye view everything is clear, but you see only around yourself, not much, but you see everything clearly.  This is very powerful, then suddenly you see all the problems… what you thought is a big problem is not a problem at all.

One of the advantages perhaps in the subcontinent is that the technology sector was not regulated and as a consequence of that, there’s been an explosion of entrepreneurship in that area…

I don’t get when you say technology is not regulated.  If you mean telephone…

If you want to go into IT and you want to do software and so on.

Regulated, there’s a regulatory body for that.  Sometimes your Facebook disappears, because government closed down your Facebook, sometimes your internet disappears, because government has stopped this, because they say oh, this is big business. What about this? It’s under their control, under their thumb.  They make just one phone call to a telephone company, they can stop the telephone for the day, so you say it’s not regulated?

What I was getting at, there are opportunities in this field…

The reason they became entrepreneur, there was no job opportunity for them, so people had to survive. If you go to any third-world country, including South Africa, you see the people are selling things on the street.  You go to your car, there’s a line of people trying to sell you this, sell you that.  Why? Because they have no jobs, so out of the necessity for survival they started the business.  In western countries where economy is very productive, everybody is assured that they will have jobs.  They cannot give you jobs. Government is held responsible for not giving the jobs, as if they have to manipulate the system so that you get the jobs and so on.  If you have double digit unemployment, you’re a bad government, you don’t know how to run a country.

If you have 4½% unemployment, you’re a good government, but they say 4½% unemployment, how many millions, how many thousands there are, hundreds of thousands there are. Each life if important, because you’re assuring them for a job, so they’re sitting around doing nothing – you have already crippled them, paralyzed them. In third world countries, government cannot assure the jobs, so everybody has to find something to do.  So you’ll be sitting at the railway station, at the streets, everybody doing something or selling something.  Whether he needs it or not, he’s trying to see if he can sell a little thing to make a living for the day and maintain the family and so on. That’s when entrepreneurship came from.  Jobs took away that entrepreneurship. That distorted idea took away the entrepreneurship. Then they sit around, because you have to give them the job.

But what about things like social welfare systems?

That’s a very bad thing.  I’ve been saying that. That is hiding the problem. You don’t get a job, I’m giving you and unemployment benefit.  You don’t have an income, I’ll give you welfare and feel like a hero. I’ve solved the problem.

…and I get your vote?.

I get your vote.  You have not solved the problem. You’re hiding the problem by throwing money into it.  If Bangladesh could afford welfare for everybody, there’ll be no poor people.  They’ll be taking their car to their job or for pleasure, because everything is covered.

The fact that a country has a welfare program, that means there are poor people. They cannot take care of themselves, you bring the food every morning for them.  Is this a human solution? Are we in a zoo that you bring food and I survive?  That’s not a life. That’s not even an animal life.  Animal life is about going around and catching food. We have created a human zoo by doing that.  I said yes, welfare is very important, because it’s the state’s responsibility to make sure it helps the people in distress. But keeping them in that position year after year and generation after generation, because if you are a welfare recipient, most likely your children will be welfare recipients.  They grow up and pass them to the third generation unemployed and welfare recipient.

So, you again took away my ability to be myself, because you give me something.  If I was disowning that welfare system, then I’ll say yes, I’ll give you that, but my first responsibility to take care of you.  My second responsibility which is a much higher level responsibility, is to help you so that you can earn your meal and I will not quit until I’ve done that.  Governments don’t do that.  Firstly, that’s a very heroic work, it looks very nice and it stop there.  In the process you destroy that person and you destroy the future generations.

Are you optimistic that your message is being heard?

I’m optimistic, you’re interviewing me.  If you’re not interested in what I’m saying, you won’t be waiting around to interview me, so something tickles in your mind and you’ll be passing it on and tickles somebody else’s mind also and say hey, maybe he’s right. He doesn’t sound like a stranger, as he says.

The world is looking for solutions and they certainly aren’t finding them in the current environment.

Because they’re blinded by the system, so they look for the solution within that little space, they cannot get out of that well.  There’s lots of solutions out of that well, but you cannot break that well.

Professor Yunus, it’s been a privilege.  Thank you.

Thank you very much.

The global unemployment rates show for pretty gloomy reading in South Africa. Infographic courtesy of OECD.
The global unemployment rates show for pretty gloomy reading in South Africa. Infographic courtesy of OECD.
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