I firmly believe that the ideas I disseminate through my writings, my public talks and my other interactions with people have the potential to foster more social change than any organization I can ever create. To bring home this point, let’s consider the case of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank and the co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. To many, including myself, Dr. Yunus is not only the ‘Father’ of microfinance (don’t worry, we will return to this topic in more detail in later chapters), he is also a source of personal inspiration. Known as the ‘Banker to the Poor,’ Yunus’ bank, Grameen Bank, has over 7 million borrowers in Bangladesh—97% of whom are women. Grameen has 30,000 employees, has a branch in every village in the country, is owned by its borrowers, manages to empower 65% of its clients to move out of poverty within five years and has, in the past 30 years, been profitable all but three years—and remember, the Bank operates in one of the poorest countries in the world! Pretty impressive, right?
But now consider that over a quarter billion people have benefited from microfinance—small loans, insurance products, financial coaching and other financial services designed to empower the poor—in large part because of the example he set and the business model he created. 7 million versus 250 million. That’s a powerful ratio. What Dr. Yunus has done is transform a country thanks to the organization he started, while at the same time transforming the world thanks to the ideas and strategies he has developed.
Capital Good Fund (CGF) has yet to achieve such jaw dropping scale—as of this writing, in June of 2013, we have served just over 1,300 low-income families in Rhode Island—but the ideas I’m sharing are not only specific to a business model, they are also a kind of strategic plan for life (and I also expect CGF to reach millions of families over the next two decades). My impetus for putting pen to paper (or, to be more apt, finger tips to keyboard) is an awareness of the need for new examples for how passionate people can lead their lives (which is the subject of Chapter 3). And to share these examples, to open the door for a new world ushered in by myself and by millions of other people following their dreams, I will use the power of story. Isn’t that better than reading a litany of facts, anyway?
So let’s go ahead and start with my story. After all, if you ever take a course on public speaking, one of the first things you will learn is the importance of establishing credibility; and if I’m going to be so bold as to present a new paradigm for life and social change, then I should at least do you the courtesy of telling you where I come from, geographically, emotionally, intellectually, etc. That said, chronology isn’t especially interesting or useful, so instead, in no particular order, I will share several dreamlike vignettes from my life that have truly shaped me:
Airplanes and Nuclear Power
It’s a warm weekend day. I don’t remember how old I am, probably around 10. My dad and I are seated in the kitchen, talking about how nuclear reactors work. I understand very little of the details, but my mind cascades in a flurry of excitement: the world around us is more alive, more fascinating than what we can simply see with the naked eye.
It is several years later and my dad and I are in an airport, waiting for a delayed flight to board. The terminal is dark and I hear the sound of a busy place slowing down; it sounds like a jet engine recently turned off. I press my nose against the glass and watch airplanes taking off and landing, so common, so normal…how does it work? My dad points to one of the long, silver wings, to its carefully crafted shape, and explains the Bernoulli Principle. I understand more this time. I am more excited this time. We can harness ideas to make magic seem normal!
The Spring Sing
At the private elementary school I attended in the suburbs of Los Angeles we would have a yearly Spring Sing during which the teachers and administrators would assemble all the parents and march us out on a big field to showcase our talents. In the days leading up to the event we practice the marching: every detail has to be exact; the parents must be pleased! You would think, wouldn’t you, that singing would be a central component of a Spring Sing? Alas, I discover that we will be lip-syncing (better to impress the parents!). The day of the event comes, and I refuse to follow orders. I walk out of line, make jokes, disrupt the choreography of the day. My best friend, Danny, overhears a teacher say, “That kid is trouble.” When he tells me, a smile crosses my face. The seeds of rebelliousness, of an unwillingness to accept things as they are, begin to take root.
The Tour de France
I am seated on a couch one warm afternoon, the summer sunlight begging the flowers for attention before saying goodbye for the night. I am watching the Tour de France, mesmerized by the colors, the shapes, the scenery, the athletes. When I learn that the riders average speeds in excess of 25 miles per hour, I am stunned: suddenly I become aware of how much a human is capable of. 25 MPH! That’s how fast cars go on city streets! You can go that fast on a bicycle? What else can you do? The limits, the barriers to what can be done are falling by the wayside.
The Bicycle Accident
I am at my parent’s house. At 4:00 P.M. I decide to take a break from doing homework to go for a bike ride. I am 18, a freshman in college. The bicycle is brand new, purchased the day before. I ride about 10 miles, turn around, and head back. Half a mile from home, going 35 miles per hour down a hill, I hit a deep pothole and go crashing to the pavement. My elbow and collarbone are broken and I have suffered a serious concussion. My body is covered with blood and bruises; my helmet is smashed to bits.
I don’t remember much about the next few days, but I vividly recall what happens the following morning. I awake on the 20th of March, groggy, in horrible pain and still recovering from the previous evening’s amnesia, with CNN on and dreadful images of anti-aircraft fire, missiles, and all the accouterments of war: the invasion of Iraq has begun. For me, a new path and a new commitment are also beginning. For the previous few months I have fervently protested against the war, dutifully attending marches, chanting slogans and engaging in heated debates with friends. Then, after one protest where the chant of choice had been “No war for oil,” I have an epiphany: here I was, driving to march after march in order decry a war that, then at least, I felt was for oil! I decide to stop driving and purchase a bicycle, which becomes my sole means of transportation for the following 8 years. To me, this is the most poignant form of rebellion, a refusal to partake in a system that leads from the gas pump to the halls of Congress to foreign policy and war and death and injustice.
The Slums of Cairo
The stench of garbage is all encompassing. The Zabaleen, the garbage pickers, literally live in it—their job is to recycle every scrap of plastic, metal or any other useful material, and sell it so as to avoid starvation. Dozens of pigs roam the neighborhood, eating the leftover organic waste. I am standing atop the roof of a rundown school building in a slum in Cairo, Egypt. From this vantage point, poverty is inescapable; the slum stretches beyond what I can see and, in a strange way, what I can feel. I am here with my friend T.H. Culhane, and we are working with the Zabaleen (they are Coptic Christians) to build solar water heaters out of waste products. The goal is to find a cheap and sustainable means of enabling the families to wash in hot water. Down below, a stream of hot water is flowing and children are happily playing in it. I am struck by the injustice of it all, but also by the hope and the possibility: the problem is bad, but it can be solved.