Special Feature

Interview with Ujal Ibrahim: Changing the World Through Social Business

11 Jul,2014

Dhaka, July 09 (BdChronicle Special Feature):

Professor Yunus shook up the world by introducing the concept of social business. What is a social business and how does it work? Most importantly what is so impressive about it that appeals to nations across the globe?

We sat down this week with Ujal Ibrahim to talk about social business at length. Ujal Ibrahim is a faculty member at the School of Business, North South University (NSU). He volunteers for Yunus Centre for social business related activities. He is part of a group of experts that oversees new social business ventures originated from social business design labs organized by Yunus Centre. He is also an advisor of Social Business Youth Network (SBYN) – an organization consisting of students representing more than twenty universities of Bangladesh. He has been playing an important role as a social business educator, trainer, and a leader in popularizing the idea of social business among the youth. Ujal holds a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah, USA, and a master’s degree from Texas Christian University (TCU), Texas, USA. He also has professional experience in broadcasting and healthcare industries.

BdC: Can you explain for our readers the basic idea behind social business? How someone can distinguish between a traditional business and a social business?

UI: Whenever we think of a regular business it’s all about profit maximization. At the end of the day it all boils down to making money. Professor Yunus has introduced a new way of doing business. There is an option for everyone to pick. Social business is a cause-driven business. It is all about identifying social problems around us and solving or alleviating those by designing businesses. The objective is not to maximize profit; the objective is rather to solve a problem. In a social business, the investor gets the invested money back. He doesn’t get anything beyond that invested money. Since it is a business, it has to be economically and financially sustainable. So, just like any other business, a social business needs to make money, but the profit stays with the business and you reinvest the profit for further expansion, and the business keeps growing.

BdC: What would be the incentive for an investor in this?

UI: Generally speaking, the major incentive for the investor in a regular business is to receive the dividend beyond the invested money. But in a social business, there is no dividend beyond the original invested money. Investors’ satisfaction and happiness in social business come from contributing to solving a problem and making others happy. That is a super incentive, isn’t it? It is all about the mindset. We, the human beings are multi-dimensional – definitely making others happy makes us the happiest.

BdC: Have you found it difficult to get the idea across to the mass public, particularly considering that our whole social construct and narrative tell us to pursue money?

UI: That is a great question. I have been working with social business since the inception of the idea. My work mostly has been on the academic side of it. I’ve also been working very closely with the youth, especially the youth organizations connected with social business. You are right! We are programmed to believe that business is all about making money. We have never heard of any other ways of doing business. It is the predetermined mindset that sometimes make it a bit difficult to accept the fundamentals of social business.  It’s all about getting out of that mindset, and recognizing that there could be a selfless way of doing business, which is social business. Thinking about the goals of social business will make us excited to pursue it. I’ve seen enrmous excitement among the youth. Sometimes they feel frustrated seeing the problems surrounding them. They believe social business can be a great tool to solve or alleviate those problems.

BdC: It goes against what we have always been told…

UI: Yes, indeed. This isn’t something we are accustomed to hear about. This isn’t something we read in textbooks. Social business textbooks are in progress, though. Academics are working on conducting empirical research and designing curriculums on social business. So, it is all about thinking differently. I can tell you, as soon as you realize that it can be done, it is really fun. As I said, I have seen this happening, especially with the youth. And they are the ones who are going to shape the future.
BdC: Why social business is important for our society?

UI: If we revisit the core idea of social business, we see it is all about solving or alleviating social problems. You are designing businesses to address problems. Also, think about this global scenario -- almost half of world’s population still live below 2 dollars a day. Traditional businesses must have gone wrong somewhere along the way. We have severe inequality in the world. We still have many people around the world who do not get to eat a single meal a day. We need to do something for those who are not as fortunate as us. Social business is a great tool for addressing those problems. Many traditional businesses  surely have great contributions to the society. But at the end, businesses feel that pressure of paying dividends to the investors. But in social business you don’t have such pressure. You are fully dedicated to contributing to the society – that is your goal. Finding a problem is not a problem, because problems are everywhere. We just need to come up with social business ideas to solve those problems.

BdC: Do you think social business seeks to remove the excessive competitiveness in the society?

UI: Competition is not the point. We are not against traditional business. We are not saying social business is “the” right way of doing business and the other one is not. We are not saying you should convert your business into a social business. What we are saying is this is an option for you. We believe you will like it if you give it a try. The idea of social business is very friendly for all.

BdC: How important is the involvement of the youth?

UI: I’ve been working with the youth in the area of social business for some time now, especially with the youth organizations. It is very important that the youth gets involved. Sometimes I feel that they are frustrated with the status quo – they don’t feel comfortable to accept everything the way it is. They seek changes. I am very happy to see the way the youth have accepted the idea of social business. It did not take them too long at all to get out of the traditional ways of thinking. They believe social business can be a strong tool for fighting problems like poverty, unemployement, and so on. There is a wonderful student organization called Social Business Youth Network (SBYN). This organization consists of students coming from more than 20 universities in the country. They represent the youth of our nation. Recently, they organized a Social Business Youth Summit. SBYN creates the platform where the youth from all over the world can learn social business, and share their ideas to make the world a better place. Youth is power. They are the ones who will bring about positive changes to the society.

BdC: Tell us a little bit about current social businesses in Bangladesh. Who are they and how are they doing?

UI: Social businesses do not necessarily have to be big. It can be a small business. One interesting thing is that the problems we identify are not just our problems – there are in fact similar problems all over the world. If you come up with a solution at your community level, that can be replicated everywhere around the globe in the same manner. Think about microcredit and Grameen Bank -- the idea and the system were originated by Professor Yunus in Bangladesh. But today, the Grameen Bank model is replicated in close to one hundred countries.

Coming to examples of social business in Bangladesh -- there is one called Grameen-Danone. Danone, a French food-products multinational corporation, is a world leader in the food industry. The company manufactures fortified yogurt which we know as "Shakti Doi". The idea behind the venture is to solve the nutrition problem among children in rural Bangladesh who suffer from severe malnutrition.  If a child takes two cups of yogurt per week, and continues having them for a couple of months, the child gets out of malnutrition and becomes perfectly healthy.

Grameen-Veolia is another social business that has been in opetation in Bangladesh for some years now. Veolia, based in France, is one of the largest water companies in the world. The business addresses the arsenic problem in Bangladesh..Exessive level of arsenic in water could be life- threatening. The business is providing with “Veolia” quality water at an affordable price to the villagers.  

Grameen-Intel is another one. The global microprocessor giant is bringing in their technology to assist the farmers of Bangladesh. The devices developed by Intel help the farmers determine the fertility of the soil and the right type and quantity of fertilizers to be used. The company also has brought health care technology to pregnant women in remote villages. Simple yet very effective diagnostic measures are saving many lives in our rural areas.  

Grameen Caledonian College of Nursing is another great example that is creating world-class graduate nurses in the country.The graduates are the daughters of Grameen Bank borrowers. In many cases, no one in their families ever went to primary school, but the daughters are graduate nurses. What does it tell us? It tells us that the problem was with the system. There was nothing wrong with the potential or the capacity of any of the family members. It’s the system that was responsible -- it never gave them a chance to flourish.

There are many more examples of social business in the country that are addressing the pressing issues of the society.  

BdC: Tell us about the Design Lab at the Yunus Centre. What is it about and what does it do?

UI: The idea of the Design Lab is to encourage the potential entrepreneurs to bring in their social business plans, implement those, and become entrepreneurs. The Design Lab takes place once a month. After going through the screening, the social business plans that end up at the design lab are presented by the potential entrepreneurs in front of the investors and an expert group consisting of people coming from different backgrounds. Professor Yunus moderates the proceedings of the lab.  We suggest changes in their plans if needed to make those more viable.

Currently, the design lab is mostly focusing on the Nobin Udyokta (NU) programme. The NU programme is designed to facilitate the sons and daughters of Grameen Bank borrowers to be successful entrepreneurs. Instead of being job seekers, we are encouraging them to be job creators. Most of the NU projects are small - addressing community issues, which do not require much of an investment. The entrepreneurs are provided with equity financing. The NU begins the business as a paid manager of the business owned by the investor. The investor recoups the invested money in a certain time period as per agreement with the entrepreneur. Then comes the major responsibility/objective of the investor, which is to transform a job-seeker into a job-giver. The investor's entire purpose of investing in the NU is to establish the young person as an entrepreneur. The investor does this by selling his shares to the entrepreneur following social business guidelines.

In the NU programme, the investor will take an amount equivalent to the original investment amount plus a fixed sum of 20 % over it. For example, if the entrepreneur is paying back the investment amount of Tk. 100, he will have to pay back a total fixed amount of Tk. 120 irrespective of the time it takes to pay back the money. This additional amount is called a “share transfer fee”. The investor in this case is an active investor. He provides a lot of services -- he prepares the entrepreneur to become an efficient entrepreneur, trains him, provides guidance and support services, monitors his business performance, and bears the business risk.

BdC: Tell us about the 7 principles. What are they?

UI: The seven principles introduced by Professor Yunus work as a framework for social business. If a business fulfills all seven principles then it is considered a social business. Here are the principles: (1) The business must be cause-driven, (2) Since it’s a business, it has to be economically and financially sustainable, (3) The investor gets the invested money back within a stipulated time, nothing beyond that, (4) The business makes money. The profit is reinvested in the business, (5) Employees will receive market wage with a better working condition, (6) The business needs to be environmentally conscious, and (7) Do it with joy.

BdC: How the concept has been received globally? Do you see social businesses growing around the world?

UI: The idea originated in Bangladesh. It is the brain child of Professor Yunus. There are some “Yunus Social Business Global Initiatives” around the world --  in Haiti, Albania, Columbia, Tunisia, Uganda, Brazil, and India. Each of these initiatives has its own incubator fund and is working hard to solve local problems. Social business has been proved to be very effective to solve problems in Haiti. As I said, local problems have international common grounds. The health problems that we face in Bangladesh are no different from  the problems in many other countries. Professor Yunus and his team are working to create global funds for social business initiatives around the world.

BdC: What are your thoughts on the socio-political condition that makes it difficult to set up a business in places like Bangladesh?

UI: The Socio-political situations should be friendly to all kinds of businesses. The government, opposition, and all the political parties should ensure that situation is established and maintained. Social business is not seeking any extra facilities in this regard.
BdC: Do you think youth organizations like the SBYN can work as a pressure group to pressure the government to implement policies and regulations?

UI: The student organizations like SBYN can play an important role to promote the idea of social business among the youth in the country. Our youth is very creative. I work closely with them in the area of social business. They have the most wonderful ideas, and they want changes. The government should work on creating the right environment for doing all sorts of businesses, not just social businesses.
BdC: Do you think we need to educate the young students so they understand the concept?

UI: Absolutely! Social business should be part of the curriculum right from high school. It’s a new concept which is being recognized globally. We need to make sure people get the right message.

BdC: There is something called social business village. Tell us about it.

UI: Each village in the union (the smallest unit of the local government) will address its problems such as water problem, sanitation problem, mosquito problem, etc. by designing social businesses. There will be a village fund for that. The fund will receive money from individuals, corporations, foundations, and other organizations. The fund will be invested in all sorts of social businesses. Through this process, the villages will overcome their problems over time. After a certain point a union will declare itself free from social problems. In the process, all the unions of the country will do the same. It is totally doable.

BdC: Before we wrap up do you want to add anything else?

UI: To have a thorough understanding on the idea of social business and its implementation, I encourage all to read the two books written by Professor Yunus -- the New York Times best seller “Creating a World without Poverty” and “Building Social Business.” Also, someone with a time constraint can read an article by Professor Yunus titled “We are not job-seekers, we are job-givers” published on Daily Star on June 10, 2014 to have a solid understanding on social business, especially the Nobin Udyokta program.

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