Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Nobel Day

It’s not every day you meet a Nobel Laureate – but today was one of those days. And Muhammad Yunus was the man.

The American International School, Dhaka partnered with the Yunus Centre to sponsor a Social Business Competition. Individuals from five schools competed for a chance to be one of the three finalists to present today and, even better, the chance for a summer internship at the Yunus Center.  Anika from Sir John Wilson School was one of those three finalists. Students, members of the school staff, and I were there to support her.

As we left Sir John Wilson School, I told the Starfish class that I’d be going on a field trip.

“Where are you going?” asked Hisham.

“To the American School.”

“You’re going that far?! Are you taking a plane?” He asked in astonishment.

“No, no, it’s the American School in Dhaka.” I replied.

I don’t think he understood, because with a sigh and wide eyes he said, “that’s going to be a long trip.”

The trip was short, but it was as if I’d traveled to a different world. The American School really is American. It looks American with locker-lined hallways, astroturf instead of grass, decorated display boards announcing various social cultural activities on the walls, as well as a covered swimming pool. Even more amazing, it smells like an American school too – like construction paper, glue, and spirit.

When we arrived we were taken upstairs where the four displays from our school were being finished up. The students had arrived around 8:15 AM and had 45 minutes to make their display boards. I recalled the many hours it had taken me to prepare my science fair display in high school, and cringed at the thought of having to do it in less than four hours. Paper scraps,, tape,  glue sticks, and instructions to classmates were flying across the room. But at 9:15 the chaos dissolved and the boards were on their way to the field.

All over the field, white booths, canopies, and tents were pitched and people milled about. Professor Yunus toured the perimeter of the field stopping to greet the students and acknowledge their work. Following the Laureate were photographers, teachers, staff and a mass of other people.

On stage, folk dances and songs were being performed. Members of the school staff and I sat under one of the canopies and watched the show. In a moment of distraction, I looked around and noticed the incredible diversity around me. It was as though we were at a meeting of the United Nations. Meanwhile the dancers on stage reminded me – both because of their movements and because of their costumes – of the little figures in the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland. And in that moment, surrounded by people from countless different countries, that’s exactly what the planet felt like - small.

Professor Yunus wrapped up his rounds and settled under our canopy. People swarmed around him wanting pictures and autographs. However, had I not seen him sit down, I would have thought he was in the booth to my right where a perplexing number of people had formed a line. As it turned out Monique Coleman from High School Musical was there making the whole experience just that much more American.

At 11 AM we were ushered into the largest of the tents. Ms. Subhan, the wife of the school’s founder, and I attempted to seek relief from the heat and headed for some seats near a fan. Unfortunately, the fan’s angle was less than ideal and the air didn’t move at all. When all were invited to move up and fill in the front rows, we did so, and ended up sitting just a row behind Professor. Yunus.

The principal spoke and introduced the student finalists. Anika presented first. Her social business involved the sale of bananas and the use of any leftover banana plant products to create paper. Not only did her proposed project empower local communities by helping them make money, it also reduced landfill and saved trees. She delivered her presentation with confidence and charisma. The acts that followed were less impressive, especially when you consider the fact that Anika is thirteen years old (in 8th grade) and the other finalists were all in high school (some even in their senior year).

What followed was the speech by Mr. Yunus, who received a standing ovation as he walked to the stage. Though he spoke quite a bit about the origins of micro-credit and his career in social business, I think his three main points were:
  1. You need to undo what exists to solve the problem – when a system does not work don’t make changes to it, but reinvent it, or reverse it.
  2. The world would be a better place if businesses were built to solve problems rather than to make money.
  3. The “social business of today is like the Wright Brothers’ plane.” Meaning that it has endless potential. And Mr. Yunus believes this potential exists in the young people of today. He asked parents and teachers not to push children to get the “best job”, but rather to tell them, “you alone can change the whole world”, and to challenge them to be creative and pursue their ideas. He added, “technology is like a car. It just sits there, unless the driver takes it somewhere.”
Monique Coleman and Anika
Throughout his presentation, but especially while he was discussing items one and three, I thought of a TED Talks podcast I recently watched. It featured Salman Khan, of the Khan Academy, who is changing the education system through the use of video lessons. He is using technology to turn the existing system upside down. Tremendous results have been seen in students who have used the Khan Academy tools. If you’re at all interested in education, I recommend that you check out the podcast.

Just as the oppressive heat was about to melt the audience onto the astroturf, Professor Yunus wrapped up his speech and announced the winner. It was Anika. The Sir John Wilson School section burst out in applause and cheers. Anika came to the stage and gracefully accepted her certificate and thanked Professor Yunus and her supporters.


  1. Congratulations - Anika.
    I am so thrilled that you won the first price.

  2. I would have liked a photo of the audience melting onto the astroturf but still enjoyed your story very much.
    I am definitely a big fan. Oops did I say fan - sorry - I meant supporter.