For more than 20 years, Muhammad Yunus has created new business models that marry economic growth and social justice. GrameenPhone is the latest such model. But Yunus's plans don't end with providing cell-phone service. He wants to offer shares in the company to villagers who have borrowed money from Grameen Bank. In an interview, Fast Company asked him to explain this idea.
How would your share-the-wealth plan work?
Within six years Telenor (the majority owner of GrameenPhone) will reduce its holdings by 35%. Grameen Telecom will set up a mutual fund to buy those shares. Then we will sell shares in the mutual fund to Grameen Bank borrowers, who will become part owners of GrameenPhone. And GrameenPhone is only one company. We'll create other for-profit companies and do the same thing. When our companies get to a level where they're earning a reasonable profit, we'll go public and reserve a certain percentage of shares for Grameen borrowers.
Why complicate an already-challenging business model?
As long as our borrowers are capable of working and generating enough income to take care of themselves, they're okay. But as they get older or become disabled, they become helpless. They become dependent on their children. We want to reduce that dependence. These shares will be a protection mechanism, a retirement fund.
Do poor villagers in Bangladesh make good capitalists?
All human beings are basically entrepreneurs. People want to solve problems, take on challenges, discover their talents. It's just a matter of opening up the environment and giving them opportunity. Getting people into the market is the best way to let them solve their problems. That's what we do. We get them used to testing their sense of enterprise, their competitive spirit, their productivity.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.