Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance Are Changing the World.
Recently I had the pleasure of visiting our sister organization, Grameen America, which has been providing microfinance services to low-income, mostly Hispanic clients in New York since 2008, and has since opened branches in Omaha and Indianapolis. My host was GA’s CEO of Operations, Shah Newaz, someone I have known for more than 20 years.
When I first arrived in Bangladesh, Shah was head of Grameen Bank’s audio-visual unit, and later became the longest-serving zonal manager in the bank’s history. (A zonal manager is the most senior field-based position in Grameen Bank’s structure.) Some years after that, he served as a senior technical consultant for Grameen Foundation in the Dominican Republic, where he did a great job and picked up some Spanish (which he has continued to perfect in his new role).
I was interested in how GA was progressing for a lot of reasons. My book Small Loans, Big Dreams extensively examined one of the earliest microfinance programs in the United States, the Full Circle Fund. While doing that research, my eyes were opened for the first time to the vibrancy of the grassroots economy in many inner-cities. Later, I became involved in microfinance institutions in the United States that Grameen Foundation also supported: Project Enterprise in New York City, the PLAN Fund in Dallas and the New Opportunities program of Volunteers of America in Los Angeles. Though the LA program was phased out, the other two continue providing microfinance effectively while drawing on the Grameen Bank model extensively. However, they operate on a relatively small scale, even as they try to serve a lower-income population (including many African-Americans) than other microfinance and microenterprise programs here serve.