November 06 - Interview

ANDREW COLLIER meets social entrepreneur Mel Young. With a contacts book to die for, he’s only interested in a better life for the poor ...
He’s feted by presidents and billionaires. But Mel Young is only interested in one thing – helping the destitute and the homeless.

It’s not the meetings with global stars such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates which drive him. It’s the world’s oppressed and forgotten, and he fights relentlessly on their behalf.

Mel Young is one of the world's leading social entrepreneurs - a new type of businessman dedicated to helping the poor, whether they be on the streets of his native Edinburgh or in the most vulnerable parts of Africa.

"The great and the good - they're fine for dinner party conversation," he says. "But homelessness and poverty are where I would like to make a difference."

Life has never been busier for a man who spends his time flying to speak at an international conference one day and chatting to a Big Issue seller the next.

Mel, 51, admits that, if he'd used his huge business talents purely to make money, he'd probably have racked up a fortune by now. "But I wouldn't feel the way I do.

“Anyway, I'm not poor, though I suppose I'm not very rich either. I can pay the rent and make sure my kids are all right. I get more out of the things I'm doing than money."

It was while he worked as a young journalist after graduating from university that he first really became alarmed by the problems of society: "We had people lying on the street. I wondered if there was something we could actually do about it."

His response was to launch The Big Issue in Scotland in 1993. "It was more successful than we ever thought it would be, and readers took to it spectacularly.”

Mel never made any personal money out of The Big Issue - he took a salary, but the profits were ploughed back into the company.

"That meant we could do other things. We set up a bank, Grand Central Savings, for homeless people, and I was able to help develop street papers in other parts of Europe.”

Eventually, Young felt it was time to move on. He gave up The Big Issue two years ago to devote time to two other projects - a fair trade magazine called New Consumer, and the organisation of the Homeless World Cup, a global football contest featuring homeless players.

He has a strong practical vision of how business can help ensure that the world becomes a more socially just place. "I'm against the dependency culture - I don't think it helps anyone.

“You have to look for fairer solutions. It's no use just giving money and seeing that after a year, it's all gone. You have to actually involve the people who are living in poverty."

He quotes the example of the Asia-based Grameen Bank, which will only lend to people in poverty. It has become the most successful in the world in repaying debt.

A sister venture, Grameen Phone, works by selling a single mobile phone to remote villages, with the person buying it charging neighbours to make calls. It has lifted 14,000 people out of poverty, and helped turn Grameen into a $350 million company.

Mel says business doesn’t just have to be about profits. “Companies can be driven by greed. They say that's what shareholders demand, but in reality you find that most investors don't want that."

His work has led to his election as a fellow of the Schwab Foundation, confirming his role as one of the top 40 social entrepreneurs in the world.

It also means he regularly attends meetings of the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland - the most influential business conference on the planet.

"I want to get into dialogue with these world leaders. More and more, we find that they're listening. They're not horrible people. There are actually very few horrible people in the world.

"I've seen appalling levels of poverty which have made me want to be sick. That has to stop. Ordinary people have to do something – and the politicians have to listen."
  • Andrew Collier is a journalist and broadcaster based in Yorkshire

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