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Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus Named Social Entrepreneur of the Year
Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus accepted the inaugural Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award from representatives of Pepperdine University's Geoffrey H. Palmer Center for Entrepreneurship and the Law in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Wednesday, Jan. 24.
Pepperdine School of Law Professor Janet Kerr, founder and executive director of the Palmer Center, Professor Melanie Howard, director, and Kim Retts, program administrator, traveled to Dhaka to present the award to the renowned Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Kerr and Howard formulated plans to recognize Dr. Yunus as the inaugural recipient of the award citing his work toward “eradicating poverty worldwide.” Since Dr. Yunus founded Grameen Bank over twenty years ago, Howard noted he has reached over 6 million impoverished borrowers. Grameen (or “village”) Bank has disbursed billions in micro-loans, averaging under $100 per loan, and maintaining a repayment rate close to 99 percent.
As micro-loans give people the means by which to build a business, the Palmer Center saw his method as innovative. “Microcredit is a revolutionary institution because it provides impoverished families with a means of improving their lives while preserving their dignity,” says Howard.
When the Palmer Center gave Dr. Yunus the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, his work was officially recognized in front of over fifty top officials of Grameen Bank as well as many of its sister companies, including many of his colleagues who had been unable to attend his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
Professor Kerr and Dr. Yunus discussed the similar goals of their institutions. Professor Kerr addressed the growing interest in social entrepreneurship at Pepperdine underscoring that students are interested in business opportunities that not only generate profit but also contribute to the social good. Dr. Yunus described how microcredit and law together can create environments conducive to “banking for the poor.” Yunus noted he was especially grateful that the School of Law took an interest in his work, and said, “When you raise these issues, people listen because it’s coming from a law school. I hope we can stay in touch and maintain a longtime relationship between our institutions.”
Another link in the partnership between Pepperdine School of Law and Grameen Bank was reporter/editor Zafer Sobhan, a graduate of Pepperdine, whose family is connected to Dr. Yunus. Sobhan attended the presentation and spoke about attending Pepperdine, “one of the finest decisions” he ever made. Pepperdine is a “fantastic place to receive a legal education,” says Sobhan. “Professor Kerr was one of my best professors, and it’s wonderful to see her again.”
Sobhan also commented on the similarities between the ideas taught at the law school and those enacted by Grameen Bank, such as using law and business for the greater good. At Pepperdine, “We didn’t just learn the law; we talked about what the law should be.”
Because they traveled across the world to Bangladesh, Kerr, Howard, and Retts took the opportunity to visit a few of the Grameen Bank micro-loan recipients. They met families in their small tin-roofed dwellings, and though the hosts had very little, they always offered their guests water, tea, crackers, and cookies. One woman wanted to make them clothing as a gift, since she had purchased a sewing machine with her micro-loan.
“They were so welcoming and kind to us,” says Retts. “They wanted to know about our families, and asked if we were married, and if so, how many kids did we have.”
Howard added that they saw firsthand how Grameen Bank is effecting holistic change by training its loan recipients in various health and social issues in addition to business skills. In fact, borrowers abide by the “Sixteen Decisions” which follow the four principles of Grameen Bank: discipline, unity, courage, and hard work, and include rules such as growing vegetables year-round, building pit latrines to maximize cleanliness, boiling drinking water, sending one’s children to school, and helping one’s neighbors. Many borrowers can recite the decisions without any effort.
Seeing the borrowers in person reinforced the Palmer Center team’s respect for Dr. Yunus. “He is a truly revolutionary person who has heart for change that is affecting the world,” says Retts.
And for Dr. Yunus, the feeling is mutual. He proposed that a seat be reserved at Pepperdine University School of Law for the son or daughter of a Grameen borrower who is interested in studying law. The funding would come from the Grameen Nobel Scholarship, established with the money from the Nobel Peace Prize and reserved for the children of Grameen borrowers to enable them to study in institutions of higher learning around the world.
Palmer Center representatives enthusiastically welcomed the proposal, affirming the importance of the relationship between Grameen Bank and Pepperdine University School of Law. The Palmer Center hopes to send an intern to work with Dr. Yunus this summer.
When thanking the Palmer Center for the award, Dr. Yunus said, “It is a symbol that you felt something so strongly to come all the way here. Our two institutions are bonding together today to dream that a new world can happen, and we’ll make it happen step by step.”
The Palmer Center, begun in the fall of 2000, is unrivaled among law school programs in its dual-focus on entrepreneurship and law. Recognizing that many law students seek to pursue alternative career paths, the Palmer Center provides its students (called "Fellows") with the necessary education and training to succeed in the fields of business, finance, real estate, social entrepreneurship, entertainment, intellectual property and technology. The curriculum includes challenging courses, which adequately prepare students to fulfill the overlapping roles of lawyer and entrepreneur.