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Yunus tells MIT grads they can 'change the world'

2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus told graduating students at MIT's 142nd Commencement exercises on Friday that they "represent the future of the world," and urged them to spend at least part of their time in coming years creating a whole new kind of businesses to help make the world a better place.

Nature cooperated with MIT's Commencement, but only after threatening to put a serious damper on the ceremony: The opening processional was delayed a few minutes by rain that had been pouring down through the early morning, but the skies cleared just in time for the ceremonies to proceed and for 2,335 graduates to receive their degrees.

Citing his own in experiences in going against all conventional wisdom in the pioneering creation of Grameen Bank in his native Bangladesh--the forerunner of what is now a multibillion-dollar worldwide trend in microlending--Yunus said such businesses have a fundamentally different philosophy than conventional companies that see their prime obligation as the maximization of profit.

What's needed, Yunus said, is to "reformulate the concept of a businessman"--not to replace the present model, but to offer another alternative that people can choose to follow. Such new-style businesspeople, he said, would have as their goal not maximum profit but "achieving some predefined social objective."

Creating such alternative socially conscious businesses, he said, "will bring a big change in the world." And for Yunus, this is not just talk, but a history of real action: In addition to his now-famous bank, he has already created partnerships to start a variety of such socially conscious businesses. For example, he created Grameen Phone to bring cell-phone service to Bangladesh and other developing countries, where most homes have no electricity, plumbing or telephone service.

Yunus has also helped to start "social businesses" including one to make yogurt that has added nutrients to help the millions of malnourished children in Bangladesh, another to provide a low-cost health-insurance program, a company to provide safe drinking water "in a sustainable way to all the people who are faced with a water crisis," an eye-care hospital, a shoe company and one to produce insecticide-treated mosquito nets to combat malaria.

'A wonderful gift inside'

He has even teamed with the giant microchip manufacturer Intel to create a company that will bring information technology to third-world countries, for health care and education.

Every graduate of MIT, he said, has the potential to "design social businesses to overcome poverty, diseases, environmental degradation, food crisis, depletion of nonrenewable resources, etc." The problems facing the world may seem daunting, he said--as they did when he started his first business more than 30 years ago--but "big problems are often just an aggregation of little problems." And these little problems can often be tackled modestly, by setting up a "cute little business."

Such a business may seem like a small contribution, but "if it works out, the whole world can be changed by replicating it in thousands of locations." All people, he said, "are packed with unlimited potential" and carry "a wonderful gift inside them … Our challenge is to help the poor unwrap their gift."

MIT President Susan Hockfield reinforced the challenge to the 983 undergraduates receiving their bachelor's degrees and the 1,352 graduate students receiving master's and doctorate degrees. She described Yunus's message as "do-something optimism," which makes it possible to tackle a big, ancient problem such as poverty and also "allows you to look at a problem as big and new and tangled as energy and climate change, and react not with fear, nor paralysis, but with the analytical curiosity and rigorous creativity of a community of disciplined minds."

While MIT will miss these graduates, she said, "the world right now needs you."

Picking up on that challenge, Phi Ho, president of the Class of 2008, who has already spent time working with underprivileged children in southeast Asia, said that among the lessons he and his classmates have learned from the "unique experience" of MIT is to "find unconventional answers to the problems the world faces today." He and his classmates, he said, "are agents of change for the future."

Graduate council president Leeland Ekstrom added that the typical MIT attitude is to "refuse to accept a 'no,'" and always to want to "make it better, even if it's good enough."

'Sun or rain, it's still joyous'

When parents and friends first arrived at Killian Court on Friday morning and saw a downpour, some decided to stay indoors and watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television. But others were undeterred: "We started to watch indoors but we decided it wouldn't be as much fun as being out here," said Carol Loehmann, whose son, Greg, received his MBA.

Loehmann, who left Cheshire, Conn., at 6 a.m. with her family to make it to MIT in time, said that even with less-than-perfect weather, "It's a joyous occasion. Whether there's sun or rain, it's still joyous."

And many graduates found the Commencement address inspiring. "It was very idealistic, and I wish more people thought like that," said Timothy Mwangi, who received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science. "He did make me think about trying to think a little bit more in a socially conscious way."

"Ultimately his message was that you can do anything," said AliciA Jillian Hardy, who received her PhD in mechanical engineering. "If your focus is on helping people, then just get out there and do it," she said.

If this generation can succeed in tackling these great problems, Yunus said, "then yours will be the most successful generation in human history." That's certainly a big challenge, but one that MIT's Class of 2008 seems ready to take on.

(Additional reporting by Anne Trafton)

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 11, 2008 (download PDF).

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