"Banker to the poor" gives New York women a boost

Thu Apr 23, 2009 12:33pm EDT
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By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, known as the "banker to the poor" for making small loans in impoverished countries, is now doing business in the center of capitalism -- New York City.

In the past year the first U.S. branch of his Grameen Bank has lent $1.5 million, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, to nearly 600 women with small business plans in the city's borough of Queens.

People around the country are struggling to repay mortgages and credit card debts, but Grameen America says its loan repayment rate is more than 99 percent.

"While other banks are collapsing, this one remains strong," Yunus told reporters at a street fair, where about 100 Grameen America borrowers sold wares ranging from food and flowers to clothes and jewelry.

"Microcredit has been one area the crisis has not impacted. The crisis has not touched it, still it is robust as ever," said Yunus, who started Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983.

Zemia Shoffner received a loan of $2,000 in January from Grameen America, which she used to take a baking class to expand her catering expertise and drum up more business.

"I have been running my business for about three years now and (the course) meant a lot because it makes me more marketable," Shoffner told Reuters, noting her bad credit meant she could not get a traditional bank loan.

"This has really allowed me to live my dream. I had another job and I wasn't really happy, so now I really have the freedom to pursue my passion. It means everything," she said.   Continued...

<p>Yoly Castillo, 37, prepares items at a Granmeen America open house at St. John's University in New York April 18, 2009. Originally begun in Bangladesh, the nonprofit microfinance organization has 600 borrowers in Queens, all women, with average loans of $2,200 with a repayment rate of 99.6 percent. REUTERS/Eric Thayer</p>