Prior to prize, Yunus inspired

The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday was in Tampa in May, changing lives.

Published October 15, 2006

Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, who on Friday was named this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, came to Tampa for three days in May when he was honored as Global Citizen of the Year by the Patel Foundation for Global Understanding.

During that brief visit, Yunus, a self-effacing economist from Bangladesh, moved complete strangers to action.

Dr. Mark Amen, academic director of the Patel Center for Global Solutions at the University of South Florida, was familiar with the concept of microcredit pioneered by Yunus' bank. The professor's once-radical idea of making small business loans to the poor has been well-publicized and replicated worldwide. But until Amen and about a dozen of his colleagues met Yunus, it had never occurred to them to incorporate microloans into their programs.

"We hadn't made the link," said Amen, whose group is designing economic development projects in Central America and the Caribbean. "The moment we heard him, we made a quick decision to add a microfinance component."

Jacqueline Conley, a shop owner in Ybor City, was moved to tears by Yunus' speech on the power of microcredit to improve people's lives. Then she was completely disarmed when the banker gave her copies of his two books at the end of the talk.

"He'd never met me before, but he picked me out of this audience of about 300," Conley said. "He said, 'I want you to have these because I think you'll put them to the best use.' "

Yunus, whose engaging manner extended to everyone from bank presidents to lunch servers, gave Conley a challenge: to establish a Grameen bank in the Tampa Bay area. She is pursuing the goal aggressively, gathering commitments from 173 people willing to contribute $500 each to finance the endeavor.

"Our idea is 'ordinary people doing extraordinary things,' " she said.

No one exemplifies that motto better than Yunus, who lit a spark 32 years ago when he pulled $27 out of his pocket to help 42 struggling entrepreneurs in Bangladesh.

Dr. Kiran Patel, who has used microlending in projects in India and Africa, said he wanted to honor 66-year-old Yunus because of his unique approach to banking. By lending to the poor, rather than the rich, and focusing on bettering an individual's life, rather than maximizing the interest on a loan, Yunus turned banking into a humanitarian endeavor worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, Patel said Friday.

"Here is a man who did something to change life," he said. "That is why this banker got what he deserved."

Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.