Professor Muhammad Yunus never wanted to be a banker and he certainly never imagined winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his quest to help the working poor invest in themselves led to both. Known as the father of microcredit, Yunus spent years developing the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and in 1983 it became a fully licensed bank with a twist—it was owned by its borrowers—mainly poor women, and its mission was to eradicate poverty, not make a profit.
Yunus is famous for saying that in developing Grameen he deliberately did the opposite of what a conventional bank would do. Today, the success of Grameen Bank has changed the lives of 7.5 million Bangladeshi borrowers and their families. Grameen is now in 38 countries and has made over 100 million microcredit loans.
But why stop with the so-called “developing world”? As the global financial industry struggles with plummeting markets and job loses, Yunus holds steady with his latest banking initiative in New York. Under intense scrutiny from international press and academics, Grameen America opened for business in a nondescript office building in Jackson Heights, Queens in late 2007. As the U.S. credit market crumbled and the giant banks of Wall Street faltered one by one, Grameen put 500 potential female borrowers into groups of five, with loans of up to $3,000 dispersed for small business ideas that each group had developed. Following the Bangladeshi model, each group became its own loan committee, with the women making weekly payments and contributions to a mandatory savings account as they built their income-generating activity.
In one year, the Jackson Heights branch of Grameen America grew to loan over $1.5 million to 550 women. Just twelve months after opening, they added two more branches in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with a plan to open in other US cities. TO CATCH A DOLLAR follows the journey of two borrowers and their Grameen group manager and the enormous life changes they each undergo. Whether being a wife and mother and starting a catering business while maintaining a full-time job or struggling to expand one’s hair-styling services as a single-parent or working to adapt a loan structure born in rural villages to the busy streets of Queens, each woman faces unforeseen challenges. Yet, they also begin to realize their own potential, fueled by the power of a model that offers support, encouragement and community.
As of June 2011, Grameen America has grown to loan over $20,000,000 million to more then 5,000 recipients, with a 99% pay-back success rate. The funds that are paid back, in turn, will be lent to new beneficiaries. Over the past two years, the borrowers have established personal bank accounts and have successfully saved over one million dollars. Before participating in this program, they had no savings at all.
This is the inspiring, logic-defying yet true story of one man’s idea, a strange new kind of bank, and the millions of lives it changed.