Brilliance and inventiveness do not come from expensive degrees but from passion and dire necessity. Sometimes when I was working on Wall Street, I’d look around at my colleagues and wonder if they were actually any smarter or harder working than some of the women who had raised me in Bangladesh. And now, working with Grameen Bank, I would often look at the women entrepreneurs and think: I could have easily been them. Sometimes I wondered what this or that woman could do if she had gotten the same education, opportunities, and connections the men I worked with at Morgan Stanley had received. I kept thinking about the sharp contrasts I had seen between the billions of dollars thrown around by Wall Street banks and the life-changing value of a single dollar for a woman in Bangladesh. These realisations made me even more determined to help these women.

One day, I visited a Grameen branch in Deujan, about 40 kilometers from Shuruj Branch where I was living. I wanted to test a hypothesis I had developed about “borrower graduation.” Every year, a successful borrower who repays her loan is offered a larger one. This is meant to help them expand their business, yet after a point, many entrepreneurs no longer know how to utilise the money. They don’t know how to grow the business beyond a certain size, or they have difficulty accessing new markets to sell their product or service.

In some cases, they then find it difficult to repay their loans. In order to prevent defaults, I hypothesised, such borrowers should “graduate” from their microloan to a small enterprise loan and receive proper training in how to run a small business. My hypothesis had proven true in Shuruj, and I wanted to test it in Deujan.

Deujan is a weavers’ area, part of the Tangail district famous for producing intricate saris. Almost every household has a loom. What an incredible amount of patience one needs to weave a sari. The designs are intricate and the threads fragile. The absolute attention to every detail required, for hour after hour of sitting at the loom, is immense. These women deserved to have their craft showcased to the world. Their talent, patience, creativity, and determination were unparalleled. My heart broke to see women defaulting on their loans for lack of access to a bigger market.

I wanted to visit a borrower who had successfully grown her business and turned it into a microenterprise. Rokeya greeted me at her house with a confident smile. I knew right away that she was a woman in charge of her life. The house was made of brick, and much sturdier than her neighbors’ mud houses. She noticed me looking at the house and proudly informed me that she had built the house using a Grameen loan in her name. Then she offered to show me her small business. We walked to the back of the house to another, larger building, with low mud walls and a thatched roof. Ample sunlight streamed in and I saw four looms in use: one worked by a man and the other three by women. Her own loom, the fifth, was the only idle one.

I asked Rokeya how she had grown the business. Hers was the first microenterprise I had seen grow large enough to employ so many. I had assumed that Rokeya had no knowledge about business terminology like working capital or inventory, so I tried to explain my questions in simple terms. But she knew how to manage inventory, how to allocate raw materials, how to sell, and how to use working capital effectively. I was impressed, and I wondered whether perhaps Rokeya held the answer for how other women could grow their businesses and avoid defaulting as they got larger loans. My hopes came crashing down, however, when I asked how much she paid her workers. Rokeya hemmed and hawed before finally answering, “Nothing.”

“What? Nothing? How do you get away with that?” I asked. Rokeya paused and then gave me the full story. “We are Muslim, and my husband can marry four women,” she said. “So I told him to marry three more women. As you know, he needs the first wife’s permission to marry again, and I gave my permission – with the condition that he and his new wives all work for me. Then, in return, I take care of them.”

I was dumbfounded. I am rarely at a loss for words, but I truly did not know what to say. Rokeya saw my shock and continued in a hushed voice, confiding in me. It seemed important to her that I understand her decision-making process. “Apa, my husband worked the small plot his father passed down to him, but that barely fed us for a month!” she said matter-of-factly. “I had to feed him, my in-laws, and my two children. How could I do that? I know how to weave, but if I weave, I don’t have time to take care of the household. I don’t have time to take my saris to market and sell them. I got so tired of our money problems – not being able to grow my weaving business – and I was scared of not being able to pay my loan. And I was so tired of enduring my husband’s constant complaints and beatings that I told him to marry again. This made him very happy. I taught him and his new wives how to weave, and now I support them with my business. Everyone is happy.”

I looked at her and took her hand. “And you?” I asked her. “Are you happy?” She looked straight into my eyes. “I am now able to take care of everyone and give my daughters an education,” she said. “I can grow my business and have money of my own. I am now a free woman. Yes, that makes me happy.”

Rokeya’s story was sobering, and it was hardly a replicable model. But it showed me the lengths a determined entrepreneur would go to grow her business, especially when her children’s future depends on it.

My days working with Grameen melted into one another as the slow rhythm of rural life took over. The routines of our work sometimes seemed mundane, but I never got bored by one thing: disbursing a woman’s first loan.

Once a woman joined a Grameen group in her village, she was eligible for a loan. To receive a loan, the borrower, our new client, needed to come to the local Grameen Bank office and sign for the
loan. She would then receive the money, along with a “passbook,” which logged the loan disbursal and repayments. Even in the 1990s, one out of five women in Bangladesh – and a much higher percentage in rural areas – could not read or write. That meant that they could not sign their loan documents. On most official documents, therefore, women “signed” using only their thumbprint. That blob of ink confirmed that the government systems did not care about their individual identity.

Grameen did not believe in thumbprint signatures. Instead, we promoted the powerful notion that each woman, like a real client, had to provide a written signature to receive a loan. So to sign for the first loan of their lives, women had to learn to sign their names. Every morning outside our mud house of an office, women would stand in a line, waiting patiently to learn how to sign for their loans. As they waited, their heads covered with the end of their saris and eyes demurely downcast, these women would give us an occasional flash of eye contact. In that glance would shine a twinkle of excitement. They were so eager to learn to pull one of the levers of power available to them.

It’s hard to capture in words the thrill of teaching a woman how to sign her name. Watching women take pride in their own names – names that now had legal bearing– brought deep joy. After bearing a child, most of these women were known in the village by their first child’s name – Hasan-er Ma (Hasan’s mother) or Fatimar Ma (Fatima’s mother) – another practice that erased a woman’s identity and power. But here at Grameen, they learned to sign their own name, the one their parents had given them.

“Hold the stick closer to the point,” I coaxed a woman named Amina one morning. “I will hold your hand with mine, and we will practice writing your name in the dirt. Let’s do it, Apa.” We crouched together on the ground and wrote “Amina” together in Bengali script. Amina was my age, but years of hardship, early childbirth, and an inadequate diet had taken their toll on her. She looked middle-aged. But today, the joy of a new beginning brought out the excited child inside her. Together, we wrote her name dozens of times, using a stick to draw on the mud. With each stroke, Amina seemed to get bolder and more confident.

“Apa, I can do it now. Can I practice on paper?” Holding on tightly to the pen, Amina wrote her name on a piece of scrap paper until she got the hang of it. Then she was ready to sign on the official loan document.

I read aloud to her the terms of the loan. To make proper use of the loan and to abide by Grameen’s social contract, she would agree to: send her children (both girls and boys) to school; plant vegetables around her house; build a pit latrine as soon as she could afford it; and neither give dowry for her daughters’ marriages nor accept dowry for her sons’.

Then the moment came. With total concentration, Amina bent down to sign her name on the document. Knowing that this signature would transport her to a new life, she wrote a name that for the first time she was seeing in its own form, by her own hand. What may have looked like a first grader’s penmanship to an outsider was the passionate accomplishment of a woman unleashing her own power.

Amina looked at me with tear-filled eyes. She took my hands in hers and touched them to her head. As I wiped away my own tears, I handed her the money. “Amina, Apa, look at me,” I said firmly. “Look. You are now a businesswoman. From now on, never look down when you speak to anyone. Others need to respect you. You are taking control of your life. And most importantly: you are my client now. Thank you for your business.”

Though I repeated this ritual hundreds of times, I never got tired of it. No joy compares to helping someone find their dignity and showing them the source of their own power.

Excerpted with permission from The Defiant Optimist: Daring to Fight Global Inequality, Reinvent Finance, and Invest in Women, Durreen Shahnaz, Penguin India.