In the past 30 years, Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank has earned worldwide acclaim for its service to the poor of Bangladesh. Yunus and his affiliates have combined a commitment to improving society with unrelenting business acumen to produce a business that is simultaneously charitable and sustainable: he has not merely created sympathy for the downtrodden in the developing world, but has developed and refined a successful business model in doing so. Many millions of families in the emerging world have ascended from poverty through the virtues of microlending.
However, microlending, as a means for poverty alleviation in the United States, faces many hurdles. The presence of Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) and a wealth of socially minded students made Fuqua an ideal candidate to help refine the successful model to meet the sensibilities of the American borrower. Fortunately, I was selected to be a part of the independent study team that sought to create a sustainable business model for this proud organization here in North Carolina. Despite some previous leg work, we essentially started with a clean slate, and this created a truly formative learning experience for us.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I have little to no experience with microlending. In fact, no one on my team had any real idea how the model was supposed to work. And, having different backgrounds, we all saw the objective from a different perspective. My first inclination was to find a way for this organization to become sustainable and profitable quickly, while my teammates believed it should be a vessel for social change. Either way, for me, it represented a dramatic shift in learning. In classes at Fuqua, and throughout my academic career, learning has been done in accordance with a syllabus, in a more structured fashion. This, however, was completely open ended: there were times where we would have been thrilled to have a better defined script.
But the absence of a set schedule or objectives forced us to collectively be more resourceful. In a way, not only did we have to learn about microfinance, but we had to determine which aspects of it were most germane and would help us complete our report in the next month. Certainly, there was a limitless universe of information at our disposal, but our client was expecting tangible results, a presentation that surpassed theory and concept to afford them something workable. Microfinance education becomes secondary in importance to project management; and this, it seems, was probably the most enduring achievement I’ve had this year. I’ve enjoyed every minute of classroom education so far, but dealing with a client was almost certainly more applicable to my career than anything I could learn out of a textbook.