St. John’s joins forces with Nobel laureate

Muhammad Yunus speaks to more than 200 students and faculty at St. John’s University at the announcement of a new partnership between the school and Grameen Bank. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Stephen Stirling

When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus first began giving out micro loans to people in impoverished villages in Bangladesh in 1976, he collaborated with faculty at the university where he worked. Now more than 40 years later and half a globe away, Yunus is applying the same concept in Queens at St. John’s University.

Yunus, 68, was the guest of honor at St. John’s Saturday at the announcement of a new partnership between the university and his world−renowned micro−lending firm Grameen Bank.

Grameen, which opened its first city branch in Jackson Heights last April, gained international acclaim by turning the traditional lending structure on its head. Grameen issues tiny loans, often less than $10, to mainly female entrepreneurs in the poorest parts of the world and through weekly meetings with the borrowers and group encouragement has managed to maintain a more than 90 percent payback rate.

Yunus and Grameen Bank shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for their work.

“It’s amazing that looking from the top you don’t see anything at all, but if you truly look at the individuals, you can see that they can accomplish amazing things,” Yunus said at St. John’s. “There is an astounding capacity for some people to see things where others cannot, and that is this basis for our micro−lending firm.

St. John’s University President James Pellow announced that the school’s Tobin College of Business had formed a partnership with Grameen America that will have students working side−by−side with members of the nonprofit. Pellow said the newly established Global Loan Opportunities for Budding Entrepreneurs initiatives will provide students with the opportunity to learn and work in the field of business and micro−finance.

“It’s been a wonderful experience so far, bringing Grameen to New York City,” Yunus said. “We hope to strengthen this partnership with St. John’s. I think they can give visibility to us and we can grow together.”

According to Grameen America CEO Stephen Vogel, the Jackson Heights branch has in its first year given out more than $1.5 million to more than 600 borrowers — mainly Queens immigrants who are struggling to get a solid footing in the United States.

“There was a trust issue at first,” Vogel said. “Borrowers were afraid of the bank, but we’ve since surpassed that and things are now moving ahead nicely.”

Pellow said that through the new partnership, St. John’s students will intern at the nonprofit, help with its city project and work with Grameen officials in class to make their own loans to impoverished communities abroad.

Dr. Linda Sama, project director for St. John’s GLOBE program, said students have taken to the concept quickly and already have their first borrowers — a group of women trying to start a chicken farm in Madagascar.

“They’re learning that business and society are reciprocal,” Sama said. “They have been stellar. They have already made enormous progress and their enthusiasm has been just wonderful.”

Sama said with the national financial crisis as a backdrop, the program should provide an ethical boost to young business students.

“There is no better place to start this than the business school,” she said. “If business students get this, understand this, my idealistic point of view is that they will become socially responsible business people.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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