An Elevator Ride with a Nobel Prize Winner

Four days ago, a Nobel prize winner held my hand for an entire conversation. I write this blog as an attempt to process what happened; I am overwhelmed, inspired, and eternally grateful. Here, I will uncover how I was able to make that work and what I learned from our exchange.

A few months back I knew that I will be in the same room with Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus, a champion of social enterprise and micro-finance and a Vanderbilt University alumnus. That is because I had a great opportunity of being selected out of over 25,000 applicants from 190+ countries to attend the 10th anniversary of One Young World (OYW), a gathering of 2000+ young leaders from around the world who are selected to develop solutions to the globe’s most pressing issues.

I had my eyes set on OYW since last year when I applied but did not make it. This year, I received 2 scholarship rejections but made it through the third. YES! I was thrilled to learn that the list of phenomenal speakers included Founder of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson; First Lady of Colombia, María Juliana Ruiz, and CEO of Coca-Cola, James Quincey as well as surprise guests like JK Rowling and Prince Harry. And of course, Muhammed Yunus was amongst the speakers and I was especially ecstatic to meet him as my university’s alumnus, my center’s founding inspiration and my social enterprise role model.

As a student leader at a Vanderbilt University social enterprise center that was inspired by Yunus’ work of serving the poorest of the poor, I had a special affinity towards Professor Yunus and I simply had to make meeting him possible! And ah, did I just meet with Yunus? Here are three main themes within my approach that enabled me to meet Professor Yunus.

  1. Take different approaches. I reached out to multiple Yunus Center emails and accounts. I even slid into his Instagram DMs and got ghosted. After a little over 15 email correspondences with multiple contacts including 2 rejection emails, it finally worked! My mentor, Mario Avila, directed me to the Executive Director of Yunus Centre who connected me with the Centre’s Assistant General Manager. This is the person who put me on Professor Yunus’ calendar!
  2. Make your ask as easy as possible. Since we were both going to be at the same conference anyway, asking for a short meeting with Professor Yunus was a simple ask to be fulfilled. Being flexible and patient around any changes are key to making this feasible.
  3. Be genuinely kind. At the end of the day, you are asking for a favor and the other person is not obliged to respond. In fact, how would you expect their schedule to be? Pretty hectic, right? I was not getting responses and I had to follow-up multiple times. For that, I used an excited tone and reaffirmed my gratitude for those who were facilitating the meeting.

I was then counting the days until our meeting. I packed my carryon with sweaters and overpacked my heart with excitement. On the opening day of the conference, I was lucky to randomly run into the Bangladeshi delegation. We were all dressed in our national dresses as we walked to the iconic Royal Albert Hall for the opening ceremony and conversed about social change. I was surprised to know that the attendance of those 10 inspirational Bangladeshi change makers was made possible because of Professor Yunus. He generously gave away his OYW honorarium to sponsor them based on his commitment to developing young leaders who are affecting change. The delegation was accompanied by a Yunus Centre coordinator, Urmee Hossain, who choked with emotions when she described working with Professor Yunus and how supportive, humble and generous of a leader she found him to be. Additionally, one of the Bangladeshi delegates, KM Rahat, told me about the humility that drives Yunus’ life including his accommodation and food.

With the beautiful Bangladeshi delegation

On the summit’s third day, Professor Yunus was presented to stage by the Executive Director of Yunus Centre, Lamiya Morshed and Co-founder of the Grameen Creative Lab in Germany, Hans Reitz. Together, the two of them painted a powerful image of Yunus as an astonishing achiever who tackles challenging issues while being joyful in the face of problems. Later on, the 79-year-old incredible social change maker urged us OYW attendees not to be afraid of dreaming big when we address social issues. It is not surprising that his speech was the first to receive a standing ovation for his humble personality, inspiring stage command and humorous delivery.

Here comes my “Dear Diary, I met Professor Yunus” moment! I was scheduled to meet Professor Yunus on the summit’s third day, October 24th of 2019 at 6:30 PM. I had an image of Professor Yunus that was created by the description of the Bangladeshi delegation and my university professors. After meeting him, I am reassured that their described image was not an exaggeration. He was incredibly humble and delightfully joyful. His smile never escaped his face. Throughout our brief encounter on the fourth floor of Queen Elizabeth II hall, Professor Yunus was holding my arm and answering my modest questions. What’s next for this Nobel prize winner? He aspires to inspire more young leaders of driving social change. Professor Yunus’ companion, the Managing Director of Yunus + You The YY Foundation soon noted that they were scheduled to leave and I was sad that our time came to an end. Those were long, unfortunate 3 seconds until Professor Yunus cheerfully insisted “come with us!”, while he continued to hold my arm to the elevator. He made me feel like we have known each other for years. I am secretly (not so secretly now) thankful that I did not break into tears by how touched and humbled with the kindness I received from him. Here are three lessons that Professor Yunus inspires:

A “Dear Diary” Moment!
  1. Challenge Conventional Ways. The very idea of Grameen Bank’s mirco-finance is based on going against conventional banking approaches. As the Banker to the Poor, Yunus’ Grameen lends the poor instead of the rich, supports women with no collateral and is owned by the poor borrowers, not the bank. Sometimes not knowing something is a blessing because it frees us from being ruled by the way it is ordinarily done. When asked about how he came up with the idea of Grameen Bank, Professor Yunus famously answered saying that he looked at how banking is done and did exactly the opposite. At OYW, Yunus advised us to learn how something is done yet “don’t follow it, question it”.
  2. Don’t Look For Money, Look For Problems – Yunus believes in making businesses that solve problems, and his motivation comes from serving the base of society instead of being driven by the bottom line as well as serving human needs rather than accumulating wealth. This drive made him set more than 60 companies in motion. Yunus says “every time I see a problem, I create a business to solve it”. If you can’t think of a problem to solve, Yunus points to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for ideas. For Yunus, he looks at three main problems through which he advocates for a world of three zeros: zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions.
  3. Imagine Making the Impossible Possible – Yunus is a visionary leader who looks decades ahead in time. During his OYW speech, he humorously said: Why don’t you use your imaginations? It’s free! Yunus presses for thinking of life 50 years from now and imagining that. Many of the technologies and procedures that we have today were not even imaginable a few centuries back. Instead of being a spectator of the impossible turning into possible, Yunus teaches us to take the lead into challenging the impossible. In other words, you are missing a chance by not tackling the impossible. Imagine the world that you want to live in and it will happen.

I am grateful for all the compassionate humans who supported me to have this one on one meeting with a social change role model. Thank you to Kathleen Fuchs and Corbette Doyle for supporting my scholarship application, Mario Avila for pointing me towards the right connections, Rangaraj Ramanujam for encouraging me to believe that it is possible, Lamiya Morshed; Tanbirul Islam, Dominique Dauster and Urmee Hossain who made this meeting possible. Lastly, thanks to One Young World for awarding me the first flagship “Leading Scholarship” out of 25,000 global applicants. I am overwhelmed with kindness.

Finally, my last takeaway from meeting Professor Yunus is to lead with heart and be a compassionate leader who puts people in the heart of every solution. Professor Yunus teaches us to hold people’s hands and thoughtfully support their growth journey. In the end, an elevator ride with a Nobel prize winner is possible. The question is: Who do you want to ride with? And more importantly, what would you learn from it?


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