Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Conversation with Alex Counts of Grameen Foundation

We recently sat down with Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation. If "Grameen" sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is (or, at least, should be). Grameen Bank was started by Muhammad Yunus, the oft-credited forefather of micro-finance. In fact, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his founding of the bank. Because of Yunus and many others – including Alex – who helped him along the way, people who live in poverty now have access to money (or, credit) to start their own businesses. They also now have access to the hope it grants.

Alex loves what he does. He’s curiously both measured and impassioned when he talks about it. We asked Alex what drove him to go into this line of work.

His Path

At age 20, Alex’s life path was taking shape. As a junior at Cornell University, he took to heart some advice from a college mentor: “all problems have a solution… that solution just isn’t getting to all problems.” Alex was on a mission – to scale solutions globally, so that they reached localized problems. So, he wrote a letter to Muhammad Yunus to better understand Grameen Bank. Really, he wanted to understand if he could play a role in scaling Yunus’ approach to poverty reduction. He wanted to see firsthand whether Grameen’s impact was possible in countries other than Bangledesh.

His Fulbright scholarship, post graduation, took him to Bangladesh for six of his first nine years out of college. He worked closely with Muhammad Yunus for many years (In Alex’s office hangs a framed picture of Yunus and a post-grad version of himself sitting at a table in conversation with others. The photo smacks of collaboration and impact). In 1997, Prof. Yunus funded Grameen Foundation – with $6,000 (interest from prize money Yunnus had previously won). Convinced of micro-credit’s global potential, Alex now had a platform of his own – as head of Grameen Foundation – to scale an impactful solution to poverty reduction. In the process, he became a full-fledged social entrepreneur.

Key Lessons

Today, Alex Counts is a force in the non-profit world. The risks he took to become a social entrepreneur have paid dividends. We can learn a lot from his path, its uncertainty, and his ultimate success.

The work of a social entrepreneur is truly noble. But how difficult it must be to start your own (non-profit) business if you can’t promise returns to investors… or even yourself (in the traditional sense of “returns” anyway). How did Alex do it?

He talked to people. Lots of people… for funding. The more he talked, the more he was rejected. But the more he also stumbled upon others willing to pony up. His persistence paid off. As he put it, “The more you talk to people, the more you get of both” (‘no’s AND ‘yes’s).

He also took a leap of faith. When he and Yunus started Grameen Foundation, they didn’t know how they were going to get the necessary funding and resources to launch and sustain it. They simply believed that if they started it, then the money and people would follow. That's exactly what happened.

A steadfast belief in their work sustained them. That belief, and the passion that it stirred within them, breathed constant life into their idea and their work.

When asked where that faith, that confidence, came from, Alex again quotes a mentor who once told him, “Even if you play and lose, you’re still in paradise.” In stark contrast to the people whom Grameen Foundation helps, Alex was lucky at birth to have been born where he was (as are most of us who read (or write) blogs).

Grameen Foundation had setbacks, but Alex looked at the silver lining of every dark cloud that came his way. The organization learned. It improved. In short, Alex used the Foundation's failures as “springboard(s) to achievement.” (How many times have we seen this theme of ‘failure as springboard’ emerge? Hint: every time).

One exchange from our conversation, seemed to capture Alex's formula for success. That is, if you “work hard,” use the “gifts” you’re lucky enough to have, and do it all with “ethics,” then “it’s only a matter of time” before your work starts yielding results (“beyond what [you] could have [ever] imagined”). Alex added: Only two things get in the way of this. Either, you’re doing something you’re not good at. Or, you’re not doing what you love.

Listen to the interview in full - You’ll find out:

* What Alex wanted to be when he grew up (and why)

* What Alex does to unwind and detach from his work’s stress

* Who he credits with granting him the freedom to pursue his true calling

Interview, Part 1 of 6

Interview, Part 2 of 6

Interview, Part 3 of 6

Interview, Part 4 of 6

Interview, Part 5 of 6

Interview, Part 6 of 6