24th and Q Street, the heart of South Omaha, is an unlikely spot to find a New York City businessmen and a Bangladeshi economist. A crowd of several hundred packed into the retired City Hall building to welcome world-renowned Professor Yunus and Grameen America’s CEO Stephen Vogel, who were in town to celebrate the grand opening of Grameen America’s second U.S. branch office. [http://www.grameen-info.org/]
Although the United States is a new and unique market for Grameen, Yunus said, “people across the globe are the essentially the same, with similar wants, needs, and aspirations.”
While Omaha’s less densely populated demography will be a challenge to Grameen’s proven model of micro-lending, success in the area may lead to expansion into many diverse metropolitan areas across the United States.
“May Omaha start the chain of expansion,” said Yunus as he wrapped up his opening speech.
Though the idea of a $1500 loan impacting a business may sound far-fetched to most Americans, my interviews with Grameen borrowers suggested otherwise.
A local business owner and one of the branch’s first borrowers teared up when asked what her life and business would have looked like without the Grameen loan.
“I would have been out of business within several months,” she said.
Overlooked by traditional banks, she reached out to Grameen. With the $1500 loan, she covered trade show fees, marketing expenses, and funded the purchase of a new computer—items necessary for success in her chose field. With hard work, the business is now on stronger footing, and with a wide-eyed smile, she noted that her last loan payment was just a few months away.
“Grameen took a chance on me when no one else would,” she said. “This leaves me feeling inspired to push forward.”
Raul and his wife Mimi, owners of a local Peruvian restaurant, had little capital to purchase the initial inventory they needed after pouring all available funds into securing a location for their business. Grameen provided them the funding they needed to get the business up and cooking.
When asked about his long-term business plan, Raul answered in two parts, mid-term and long-term. It was clear that the future was on his mind. While finishing up the payments on their first loan, the couple is making plans for a follow-up loan with Grameen to purchase a commercial oven, which would greatly help to expand the restaurant’s capabilities.
Grameen has obviously brought more than just a few small loans to South Omaha entrepreneurs. A cosmetics businesswoman disliked the traveling requirements and time spent away from her family, yet she takes solace in the fact that the harder she worked, the more she earned. To borrowers like her, Grameen has brought hope in a better future and a resurgence in the idea that the American Dream is alive and still within reach to those willing to work for it.