Celebrating the Journey: Final Remarks

November 13, 2015 by Alex Counts

Current and former Grameen Foundation staff and board members, as well as friends pay special tribute to Alex Counts

Below is a reconstruction of our founder Alex Counts’ remarks at our farewell gala for him on November 5, 2015. The event raised $447,000 to support our mission and poverty-fighting work, and donations are still gratefully accepted. Alex has added a few things inadvertently omitted from his spoken remarks. The entire after-dinner program, including opening remarks by Grameen Foundation Board Chairman Bob Eichfeld, closing remarks by Vice-Chair Peter Cowhey, and several personal tributes can be viewed online thanks to Joel Nelson, a friend of Alex’s whose wife Donna was among those offering tributes.

I once asked my father, who is watching this event tonight from heaven, why it was important to send people off in style when they leave an organization or a community after having contributed a lot to it. He said that you do a good job bidding farewell to someone as much for the people who are staying as for the person who is leaving.  

What I took him to mean was that a proper farewell reinforces the notion that the effort and results within the organization are recognized and appreciated, not just in the specific case of the person being honored, but in general. In other words, it reassures everyone that they are valued.  

In the spirit of that wisdom, I would like to ask all of you to give a hearty round of applause to everyone, whether in this room or beyond, who has worked hard and productively in support of our poverty-fighting mission.  

When I look around tonight, I see so many friends and people whom I deeply respect – probably the most ever gathered in one place. In that way, it feels something like my wedding.  Except that at my wedding, I got to sit at a table with one lovely lady, my wife Emily, while today I get to sit at a table with not just one but 11 lovely ladies.  

With those nice tributes that we heard just a few minutes ago, it also feels a bit like my funeral.  Except that I am not, well … dead.  

I am humbled that people have come from all over the world to be here at the event tonight, and have made major financial contributions as well. We have people who have flown in from China, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia just for this gala. We have many people who have come from the West Coast, Miami, Key West, and also quite a few from New York City.  

But wherever you have come from, even if it is just down the street, I deeply appreciate your presence and your support.  I also am grateful to all those who have supported this event but were unable to be here this evening.     

Being the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation is a wonderful, exciting, stimulating calling. But because of what is at stake, it can also feel like a burden at times, like any important leadership role.  Up until a few months ago, no one besides me had ever experienced the thrills and the burdens of this role. But since May, David Edelstein has done so. I want to thank him for doing such a terrific job, for which I give him an A plus since he has accomplished so much.  

I would also like to congratulate Steve Hollingworth on his appointment as my successor as President and CEO, and the fabulous Grameen Foundation Board of Directors and its search committee for finding a candidate of his caliber.  

Now, let me tell you something. Please listen carefully. It is simply impossible to pull off a gala of this magnitude in five and a half months in a city you have never held a gala in before.  Unless…  

Unless you have people like Ricki Helfer, Sandy Clark and especially Laura Tarre working on it.  

Please join me in thanking them, and everyone who worked to make this event a success on such a compressed timeframe.  

So let’s go back to our humble beginnings for a moment. As you all know, we started with $6,000 of seed capital.  

Before I go any further, let me say something important. If any of you ever get an offer to start an organization with $6,000, please come talk to me first

When we started, we had little in the way of cash, experience, expertise, or contacts. I had never before managed anyone nor raised any money to speak of. But in the true spirit of microfinance, we made the most of what we had, got the maximum impact from a small amount of money, and focused more on our strengths then our weaknesses.  
What were those strengths?

First, we knew we had a major asset in being part of Grameen, one of the most respected brands in the international development sector. Beyond that, we had virtually unlimited access to Professor Muhammad Yunus during that crucial start up period.  So we made the most of these.

Second, because we were so inexperienced, and because we knew it, we were hungry to learn, to find mentors like Jim Sams, and to apply what we learned from people like him. A beginner’s mind is a learning mind, a curious mind.  And this spirit was embraced by our early staff, two of whom – Geoff Davis and Jacki Lippman – are with us here tonight.  

Third, we were highly motivated to succeed because we knew how powerful Grameen’s ideas and approaches to poverty reduction had been in Bangladesh, and had a vision of being the leading force for having those breakthroughs applied widely on a global basis. We had seen that Bangladesh, once called “the world’s basket case” by the U.S. Secretary of State, was well on its way to turning itself around, woman by woman.  We envisioned this happening globally.  

We understood that the stakes were high and the opportunity was huge. We were humbled that Professor Yunus had entrusted us with such a broad mandate, and we wanted to make him proud of us.

And finally, since we did not initially have a lot of contacts, we knew we had to boldly ask the people who we did know for a lot. Boldness gets people’s attention, as it signals conviction, urgency and ambition. And many people, including virtually everyone in this room, responded brilliantly to our bold requests. Some of you responded immediately, while others of you took a little while to make Grameen Foundation a central part of your life. 

But all of you, and many others, did respond in meaningful ways.  Some contributed their money, others contributed their time, their wisdom, their expertise, their reputations, and their influence. That we asked so much from them, from you, and that you responded so generously, spoke volumes about you, and also about us and our potential.  

In those early weeks I was able to get a meeting with David Ford, the head of the Chase Manhattan Foundation at the time. He sized us up as a fledging start-up that might not make it, but he decided to take chance on us, and on me. In our short meeting, he told me that he would send $10,000 right away, which we received the following week. That money helped us get through the first summer -- $6,000 runs out pretty fast, it turns out – but his willingness to take a risk on us so quickly was an even bigger morale booster than bank account booster.  

Perhaps we all can take a lesson from this and be willing to take more risks on fledging organizations, ideas and people if they show promise and passion, even if they don’t have their acts totally together yet.  

It is so appropriate that JPMorganChase, which Chase Manhattan Bank joined some years back, went on to become such a strong partner of ours and is represented here tonight as a financial sponsor.  Certainly they are not alone, as companies like MasterCard and The Capital Group have been great allies along the way. But if the earliest supporters had not come through, there might have been no Grameen Foundation for the next generation of allies to work with.

When I think of the forces that shaped Grameen Foundation, or at least my experience of the organization, I think first of two essential groups: the wise men and the dynamic women. We have had a handful of men who always had just the perfect word of encouragement or advice, while remaining mostly in the background. I think of people like John Anderson, Norm Tonina, Bob Eichfeld, Wayne Silby and Peter Cowhey.  

We also have attracted a group of women who just knew how to get things done. They were talented and passionate and knew when they should just go ahead without asking for permission, and just be ready to ask for forgiveness later if things didn’t work out. I am thinking of Jennifer Meehan, Susan Davis, Barb Weber, Camilla Nestor, Lucy Billingsley, Gigi Gatti, Yolanda Walker, Shannon Maynard and many more.  What powerhouses they were, and are!

In terms of my day to day work, I had the most contact with my executive assistants, Dustin Buehler, Rob Sassor, Tania Ashraf, Sameer Sheikh and Ven Suresh. All but one is participating in this event tonight.  Let me give you a sense of how dedicated these people were, and are.  

When I announced that I was stepping down as CEO, Ven Suresh began to look for a job and, naturally, found one quickly. Yet, he agreed to continue to staff me up until my last day in early January as a volunteer, moonlighting with us after hours even as he worked a demanding job during the day. Thank you Ven, and thanks to the rest of you also. You served me exceptionally well.

I also had significant day to day contact with our extraordinary Board Chairs: Reed Oppenheimer, the late, great Jim Sams, Susan Davis, Paul Maritz and Bob Eichfeld. All but one is represented here tonight in some way. The exception is Reed Oppenheimer, who is being honored in Dallas at a gala tonight in part for his role in starting Grameen Foundation.  

I certainly could not have made it without the constant support of my family, especially from Emily, my wife of more than 21 years.  

Let me take a page from Bob Ottenhoff’s farewell remarks and offer three pieces of advice to the organization tonight.  

First, don’t ever hesitate to be different, to contradict the conventional wisdom, to stand alone, to resist a new fad, even if others cannot or will not, even if this makes us unpopular for a time. We should always speak out strongly for those things we believe are right, and humbly but clearly against those things we believe are wrong. We should never be contrarian just for the sake of it or to draw attention to ourselves, but we should also never shirk from speaking up when our principles and values call us to do so.

Second, while we should always work to make Grameen Foundation the best poverty-fighting it can be, we should never forget that we are part of a family, or really several families, of organizations. Nor should we ever neglect those relationships or fail to leverage them for the advancement of our mission.  

For example, we are part of a dynamic group of Grameen and Yunus branded organizations, represented here tonight by Grameen America. I am also pleased that the founders of two organizations that helped pave the way for Grameen America to succeed, Project Enterprise and the PLAN Fund, are also here tonight. Welcome, Nick and Debra Schatzki and Gwen Moore and thanks for being here.  

We are also part of the family known as the Microfinance CEO Working Group, and we have given birth to joint ventures, such as Grameen-Jameel (whose Chairman, my friend Zaher Al Munajjed, is here tonight) and Grameen Capital India. We have incubated dynamic institutions such as Mifos®, Taroworks™, and RUMA. At the highest level, we are part of a global movement to end poverty which is composed of thousands of organizations around the world.  

Ending poverty is a team sport, and we should never forget the many teams that we are a part of, who our teammates are, and who can be our teammates in the future.  

Third, don’t hesitate to channel the strategy and wisdom of the early Grameen Foundation of being bold in asking for those in a position to help us for all that we want and all that we need. Please don’t concern yourselves with offending people by asking for too much, which almost never happens if you do it in the right spirit.

If you ask people for a lot, perhaps more than you think they can give, basically two things can happen.

They may surprise you by doing exactly what you have asked, if not more. 

Or, they may not agree with what we have asked, but they will have gained respect for the conviction and commitment that prompted us to be bold and aggressive.  They may even be flattered as well.  

There is much left to do in the work of eliminating global poverty. But let us not forget that there has been some remarkable recent progress in reducing poverty. In one generation, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has come down from 35% to 14%.  This unheralded progress has not only been due to economic growth in India and China. It has also resulted from a decentralized and intentional campaign involving thousands of organizations and millions of people.

Don’t doubt for a minute that Grameen Foundation has played a role in this progress. The document on your table that catalogues our most significant successes is an effort to point out our fingerprints on this achievement and momentum. Other organizations have made their own impact, such as Accion, BRAC, Calvert Foundation, CARE, and Fonkoze that are represented here tonight.  

When the history of the end of poverty is written, this decentralized movement will not be understood as one that experienced steady progress on a straight line. No, there were special moments, events, ideas, products and organizations that led quantum leap advances.  

I was struck, in 2007, when Grameen Foundation and many other initiatives and organizations, such as the Deutsche Bank Microcredit Development Fund, which is represented here tonight, were celebrating their 10 year anniversaries within a few months of each other.  

But it was no coincidence. The Microcredit Summit was one of those magical moments that led to a huge leap forward, and activated millions of people in the process. I am thrilled that the founder of the Summit, Sam Daley-Harris, and the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s current director, Larry Reed, are with us here tonight.  

I believe that tonight will also be looked back on as a magic moment and a quantum leap. Grameen Foundation has just announced a goal of positively impacting 25 million poor families with its innovative products and services, as a down payment on our contribution to the global movement to end poverty. You were here at the birth of our new bold ambitions which were forged in the crucible of enduring values inherited from Professor Yunus and his team.  

It would be remiss to not thank the most generous supporters of tonight’s gala: Ricki and Michael Helfer, Paul Hilal and Josefin Persson, and Gene and Carol Ludwig. Thanks to you, and to everyone who supported this gala financially.  

Let me close with a story.  

All of the artistic genes in my generation went to my younger brother Michael, who is here tonight with his equally gifted wife Sharon. But not being able to produce art does not mean that you can’t enjoy it, support it, or advance it.  Quite the contrary, in fact.

About ten years ago I met Danny and Tim Carter, brilliant musicians who became close friends of mine and Emily’s. I came to love their music and do everything I can to help them get the attention their talent deserved. I appointed myself President of their fan club, because, well, it’s nice to be the President

And my love of their music led me to be a lover of all live music, especially when played in intimate venues. I got familiar with the Washington, DC music scene and came to love the Stacy Brooks Band. I would go to hear them play every chance I got, and still do.

On one cold fall night about four years ago, I went to hear Stacy play. I had sprained my ankle the night before, thanks in part to my dear friend Joan Robbins who is here tonight, so I hobbled in.  For not the first time nor the last, I noticed that I was the only white person in the audience. I looked out of place, even though I didn’t feel out of place.

But do you know what Stacy did?  During the very song she was playing when I walked into the venue, she stepped off the stage during an instrumental, walked over to me, and hugged me.  This simple act by the lead performer whom everyone was watching sent a powerful message: you belong here. It made me feel special, and included.  

And ever since then I have been thinking about what a great human tradition hugging is.  It costs nothing and takes very little time. Yet it is a powerful way to express love, affection, solidarity, encouragement, inclusion, and, perhaps most fundamentally, our common humanity.  

In the end, isn’t this what Grameen Foundation does? Yes, we provide financial services like loans, savings accounts and insurance policies, and also valuable information. But these things are not transformative, in and of themselves.  Many organizations provide similar things. But when Grameen Foundation provides them, directly or through partners, they are products and services with a very specific intention – an intention to include, to empower, to support, to encourage, to affirm, and to transform.  

In other words, these products are provided with the intention to help people run more successful micro-businesses, have more productive farms, take charge of their health, seize an opportunity or recover from a setback, or manage risk. We measure very carefully how successfully these intentions are realized and how much lives are improved, and always try to do better in every new cycle.  

So, as we go forth from this place on this historic night, let us commit to giving many more hugs, both literal and figurative.

Give Grameen Foundation a hug tonight. I think you know how to do that!

Give Stacy Brooks and the other musicians a hug by coming out on the dance floor. You won’t be able to embarrass yourself more than I do!  

And while you are at it, support live music everywhere.  

Give a hug to a loved one, or even to a relative stranger. Hug someone who seems out of place or vulnerable. And remember, please remember, that we are all vulnerable, just in different ways and to different degrees.

You see, a hug has much in common with supporting Grameen Foundation. In both cases, the person who initiates it gets back at least as much as they give.  
And the net result is that our world is left with more hope, more solidarity, more inclusiveness, more empathy, and more progress to a day with zero poverty.  

Thank you, and good night.