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Originally published October 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 17, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Banking revolution's father lends his ideas on how to end all poverty

Inside a private conference room at Microsoft, top executives leaned around the table, eyes and ears fixed on a small, soft-spoken visitor...

Seattle Times business reporter

Inside a private conference room at Microsoft, top executives leaned around the table, eyes and ears fixed on a small, soft-spoken visitor from Bangladesh.

He might not be recognized on the street, but to people dreaming up the next great idea to change the world, Muhammad Yunus is a rock star.

One year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Yunus came to the Seattle area Tuesday to share his vision for uniting technology and business with a social mission.

He called the information revolution "the most powerful thing that ever happened to mankind," but he said the fruits of that revolution largely have bypassed the world's poor: "The technology has not been designed for them."

Yunus appealed to Microsoft's thought leaders to help change that.

The man who turned the concept of banking on its head said poverty stems from flawed concepts, such as the idea that only people with money should be able to borrow more of it.

Yunus, 67, developed the system of microcredit, helping poor people improve their standard of living by using tiny loans to start businesses. Since giving out its first loans in 1983, the Grameen Bank he founded has reached more than 7 million borrowers who would have no access to credit through traditional banks. About 97 percent of them are women.

"The world runs with money," he said. "You need a dollar to catch a dollar, and no one gives you the first dollar."

Yunus said he also wants to change the notion that business exists to maximize profits.

"I think that's a shame because in this theory, they have actually insulted human beings," he said. "Money-making is a very important part of human beings, but human beings are much bigger than that."

Yunus advocated linking business and philanthropy in a new model called "social business."

The idea is hitting a vein among the West Coast's new breed of socially minded entrepreneurs, said former top Microsoft executive Paul Maritz, who is chairman of the Grameen Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that expands Yunus' model outside Bangladesh.

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Rather than existing to maximize profit, businesses can achieve a social good while breaking even or making a modest profit.

Yunus said this idea prompts some people to ask if he's crazy.

"My answer is people in reality are crazier than that," he said. "They give away their money. I'm talking about investing. When Bill Gates and Melinda Gates give away their money, you don't call them crazy."

One example of a successful first venture is Grameen Danone Foods, started last year as a partnership between Grameen companies and Groupe Danone of France. Its mission is to help eradicate malnutrition by providing a special low-cost, nutrient-rich yogurt aimed at children in rural areas.

Another example could be a business providing low-cost clean water, Yunus said.

Yunus, Maritz and others at the Microsoft meeting brainstormed ideas about affordable computers for students, cellphone projects for remote areas and an international center that links information technology and poverty elimination.

"Microsoft is realizing that in the future a lot of their growth is going to have to come from poorer people of the world, so they're interested from both a business and a philanthropy perspective," Maritz said.

Because the loan networks touch about 100 million people, they also offer an unusual testing ground for new technologies, he added.

After his speech in a packed cafeteria auditorium, Microsoft employees gave Yunus a standing ovation. He also spoke at the University of Washington and visited the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Yunus sets a great example for academics and students eager to apply their knowledge and understanding to world problems, said Anand Yang, director of the Jackson School of International Studies at UW.

"Dr. Yunus is an excellent model of a man of ideas who is also a man of action — a 'practical visionary,' " Yang said.

Microsoft program manager Kintan Brahmbhatt said the points made by Yunus resonated with the Redmond audience. The employees' attendance and the depth of their questions "proved that microcredit is no longer a foreign subject for Microsofties," he said.

While Yunus emphasized global poverty as a serious problem, he also showed that with the help of microfinance, it's "a problem that can be solved in our lifetime," Brahmbhatt added.

The ideas are starting to receive a warm reception from some corporate giants, too. Intel Chairman Craig Barrett last month visited Yunus in Dhaka and signed an agreement to help Grameen expand technology, broadband Internet access and education programs. IBM this week announced it would throw its support behind a new software system for microcredit institutions around the world. Called Mifos, the open-source software platform for finance applications was developed by the Seattle-based Grameen Technology Center.

But Yunus is not out to help only poor countries. He envisions bringing the same microcredit programs that worked in Bangladesh to the richest country in the world.

"Seattle has lots of pawn shops," he said. "I see it in every city. Payday loans, check cashing. ... It's an indication the financial system doesn't work here."

Yunus is starting the United States' first Grameen Bank, in the Queens borough of New York. It aims to help enterprising immigrants who can't get bank loans, and test the American market before possibly expanding to other cities.

After nearly three decades in operation in Bangladesh, the system is helping the country pull ahead: Bangladesh has surpassed all other nations in South Asia in health measurements, and it's on track to meet U.N. goals for drastically reducing poverty, a feat achieved despite a "violent, confrontational and corrupt" political system, Yunus said.

By that time, he hopes, there will be a different way for Bangladeshis to learn about poverty: "in a museum."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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