A Fireside Chat with Muhammad Yunus: Social Business

Tonya Surman and Muhammad Yunus

How often do you get to meet someone you admire greatly? The opportunity presented itself to me when CSI, the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, announced a Fireside Chat with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus. Armed with my copy of  A World of Three Zeros and Yunus’s audiobook Building Social Business playing on the radio, I jumped in my car last week and headed to Toronto to attend the chat in person, making sure I arrived early so I could sit near the front.

Tonya Surman and Muhammad Yunus

CSI founder Tonya Surman and Muhammad Yunus settled into comfortable chairs to begin their discussion. It was 1976 when Yunus started his microcredit program by paying off the equivalent of just $27 dollars of loans which had kept the residents of a small village in Bangladesh in a form of slavery due to high interest rates from local money lenders. By 1983, Grameen Bank officially became a bank for the poor.

I first heard about Grameen Bank while taking a course in Social Entrepreneurship in 2015. The idea of microcredit and how a small sum can drastically improve lives fascinated and inspired me – Yunus and his work are the inspiration behind EntreLaunch and our goal to help young entrepreneurs create their own impact.

Yunus coined the term “Social Business.” A social business is not a “personal profit-making business” not is it a “not-for-profit organization.” Instead, a social business is designed to earn a profit by solving social problems. This profit-making business reinvests profits within the company meaning no one received personal gain. So why a social business instead of a not-for-profit or charity? To paraphrase Yunus, charities and non-profits spend money once, whereas social businesses constantly reuse money as revenue is reinvested into other programs.

Social businesses solve problems. They create strategic shifts. One such project identified the problem of night blindness among children. This was largely due to a Vitamin A deficiency. Yunus found a solution – sell seeds for plants high in Vitamin A at a reasonable cost to villagers. Generate revenue to make the business self-sustaining. Reduce night blindness. This model worked for other problems as well. Grameen Danone created a highly nutritious yogurt to provide the vital nutrients many children were missing. This low cost fortified yogurt increased the health of children in rural villages and also created jobs for many females to generate additional income and skills for families.

As the discussion with Yunus continued, the topic shifted to the distribution of wealth and capital systems. As you may have heard, just 8 people own as much as the poorest 50% (3.6 billion) of people worldwide. There is a need to slow down and reverse wealth to create a more equal distribution of funds. Social business is one way to accomplish the distribution of wealth as in a social business the wealth stays in the business instead of making the rich richer. Convincing people to move towards social models is easier among socially minded millennials however for those of us raised in the capital system, we have been taught to work for others and to forego our own creativity, a condition Yunus describes as being “a tiny version of yourself.”

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, seek growth and have the opportunity to be a complete self being able to grow as big as they desire. They are eager to create, to innovate and seek more than just a job – entrepreneurs are often the catalyst for change. When Yunus described entrepreneurship, he talked about it as a way to take the unemployed out of unemployment as entrepreneurship creates jobs, even if it is just for one person. Yunus is just one of the amazing people who inspired the creation of EntreLaunch as as I sat in the presence of Yunus, Surman and the amazing audience, I could feel the power of social business and a future where we work to our strengths versus being another clog in the corporate wheel.

I had the honour of briefly meeting Professor Yunus at the end of the event. A quick introduction, handshake and selfie took place as I did not want to tie up too much time before he went for a quick dinner break. I look forward one day to having a longer discussion with this inspiring human. For those of you who are still asking “what is a social business” pick up his book (or audiobook) and learn how businesses can create social impact by solving a problem.

Until next time,


Rebecca Palmer

Rebecca Palmer is the founder of EntreLaunch, a serial entrepreneur and community builder with a mission to inspire innovation, transform lives and connect communities. A lifelong learner, she stays up to date on new trends, needs and strategies with a focus on global entrepreneurship, strategic shifts and social good.