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Muhammad Yunus Joins HEC Paris Initiative to Maximize Social Impact in Business

In November, HEC Paris hosted the 2016 Social Business Academia Conference featuring Nobel Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus. 113 people from around 20 countries participated in the two-day event. The co-President of the Social Business/Enterprise and Poverty Chair thus rounded off an intense year of exchange with the French capital which included the establishment of the Yunus Center Paris, a permanent resource office aimed at guiding and supporting a more inclusive economy. 11 years after his first visit to the Jouy-en-Josas campus, Yunus described this latest exchange with the business school as “crucial”. 

Muhammad Yunus Joins HEC Paris Initiative to Maximize Social Impact in Business

Just where does 76-year-old Muhammad Yunus draw the energy he displayed during his 48-hour stay at HEC Paris? With unflustered concentration, the pioneering founder of Grameen Bank helped launch HEC’s new Movement for Social * Business Impact; negotiated with six multinational business leaders on the latter’s commitments to social business; discussed current and future collaborations with Paris mayor; exchanged with entrepreneurs from North Africa  and the Middle East; met with HEC students; and provided the keynote speech which closed the Social Business conference. A conference co-organized by HEC’s Society & Organizations Center (SnO) in which Yunus participated in intensive exchanges featuring representatives from Yunus Social Business Centers scattered around the world, as well as academics, bankers, NGO representatives and students. 29 papers were presented and the professor did not seem to miss one.

“It has been a very important two days,” Yunus said in a long exchange with graduate students Victoria Reca and Dan Parks. Halfway through his stay, Professor Yunus squeezed in a half-hour exchange with the two students from the HEC MSc in Sustainability and Social Innovation. He expanded calmly on his vision of helping HEC Paris diversify its research into social business. “This school was the first to create a Social Business Chair and they are now experimenting with action-tanks, building bridges with major businesses. Today was important because we are bringing in business leaders, explaining to them why social business is important. By forming an association between the business community and HEC we are working together to guide (the former) in creating social business.”

The specialist in microfinance believes this movement is changing economic realities “in an exponential way”. During the evening conference, Yunus underlined this “transition process” aimed at distributing power and wealth more equitably. “This focuses on three zeroes which I believe are foundational: zero unemployment, zero poverty and zero carbon emissions,” he announced to a packed Hall d’Honneur which featured representatives of the six partner multinationals. 

Three central pillars

Closely following this development was the co-founder and executive director of the Social Business / Enterprise and Poverty ChairBénédicte Faivre-Tavignot. The HEC specialist in social innovation has been interacting and collaborating with Yunus ever since an October 2005 conference in which he received the HEC Honoris Causae distinction. The same day, HEC organizers co-organized the lunch and first meeting between Yunus and Frank Riboud, CEO of Danone, where the creation of the social business Grameen Danone was decided. Since that time, HEC has been involved in the social business adventure, creating also the Social Business Chair in 2008, with the support of Danone, Schneider Electric and Renault. This Chair is based on what Faivre-Tavignot calls “three pillars”. She explains: “Alongside the Chair holder Frederic Dalsace, we first started with education, launching the social business certificate. At the same time, we created a Mooc called Ticket4Change, through which we have so far helped educate around 40,000 students on how to become entrepreneurs of change. There was also the executive education program called ‘Inclusive Business and Value Creation’. The second pillar is research. There is currently a growing and diversified body of research in what is quite a new academic field. Finally, we initiated a third pillar which focuses on action. In collaboration with the other co-President Martin Hirsch, and Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s new CEO we created the Action Tank Social&Business. Here, we bring together major firms involved in social business, civil society and public authorities. 

Movement Gives New Impetus to Social Business

To accelerate this trend, implement these ambitious projects and further contribute to a more inclusive economy, HEC Paris and the Action Tank seized the opportunity offered by Yunus’ visit to launch the Movement for Social*Business Impact. This ambitious program has been created in partnership with six multinationals “This allows us to expand our action with partners in other countries like India, Brazil and China where universities will be setting up social business chairs. The idea,” Faivre-Tavignot says with insistence, “is to change the rules of the game, to see concrete transformations through those three pillars.”

Founder and co-director of the SnO Center, Rodolphe Durand, acknowledges “far-reaching and dynamic results” from Yunus’ visit. “To begin with, we were able to step in to keep his movement going.” The Professor in Strategy and Business Policy turns to the impact of the Bangladeshi’s stay: “Muhammad Yunus helped to mobilize resources for us to create greater impact in the business world. We also saw his influence on the students and professors here, over 800 of them attended his evening conference. And there is his positive engagement in testing experiments in our Action-Tank which we want to internationalize.”

“We are all mercenaries”

For this social entrepreneur and civil society leader, citizens everywhere must fight a “ticking time bomb” where “fewer and fewer people control more and more of the wealth in the world.” 

“It’s getting worse” Yunus told students Reca and Parks. They exchanged the day after Donald Trump swept to victory in the US presidential elections, a result the social entrepreneur called “a solar eclipse” earlier on. “People are frustrated, angry because they don’t understand why there is so much wealth concentration in so few hands. We have to redesign this strange financial system. We all directly or indirectly work for the top 1%. So we are all mercenaries, soldiers on hire… To overcome this, each one of us has to become an entrepreneur.”

One of developments during Yunus’ visit was to sign a November 8 deal with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo to make social business a central pillar of the city’s candidacy for the 2024 Olympic Games. At the same time, Hidalgo announced that Paris is to host the Global Social Business summit on November 6-7 2017. “This is bringing Paris into the heart of our social business initiatives,” Yunus explained, “it is a much bigger challenge than we have known anywhere else. They have called on us to help solve the problems of the unemployment, the economy and the environment. So we need the collaboration of as many business executives and HEC students as possible to see what kind of social business we can build in Paris.”

“There is a tension between the local and globalization,” notes Professor Faivre Tavignot. “In Paris, it needs to be addressed. With Yunus and his Paris Center, we want to explore embeddedness, mobility, housing, capacity-building to fight unemployment.”

Professor Durand adds: “Business practices must change as company behavior is increasingly scrutinized. The multinationals of today cannot be those of tomorrow. There is a genuine questioning of their policies: how can they maintain their financial figures while providing a more inclusive economy? To help reform the system, we have to include politicians, NGOs and research centers like those at HEC Paris. We want to analyze these practices and find a recipe to improve the engagement of the employees and citizens at large.”

A clarion call which resonated throughout Yunus’ November visit. The septuagenarian was upbeat in his vision forward: “When you bring all these forces together you become stronger than one individual force. It’s powerful… When I look back at what we have achieved so far, I see that we don’t have a stagnant vision, there’s a continuum which raises big and fundamental issues. We do it in Bangladesh every day, where thousands of young people become entrepreneurs each day. And we can do that in Paris too.”