July 7, 2010 | 9:08 AM
By Donna Khalife
Our adventures at the Whole Foods in Tribeca began when we entered what appeared to be one of the largest supermarkets I had seen in New York City. We were told it had 400 employees, but that figure didn’t really make sense until we got there. The location has two levels and is the size of an entire city street block. The store is full of smiling employees who let you sample anything and everything before you purchase it, vendors offering free tastings at every corner, a ton of pre-cooked food for the busy New Yorker on the go, and over 25 express counters to ensure a quick checkout.
We arrived at the Customer Service counter and the employee asked if we were with Grameen; it was a nice surprise to discover that they were expecting us. We waited for the “In-Store educator” and strolled up to the second floor with our large poster boards in hand. It’s always fun to see people’s reactions on the subway when we walk around with these posters. For this event, we chose to bring a few of our favorites: a blow-up of our New York Times article featuring nice colorful pictures of our borrowers, a blow-up of the Times article (equally attractive and colorful), a picture of Professor Yunus cutting the rope at the Manhattan branch opening in May, and a picture of Professor Yunus receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama last year. The last one always catches people’s attention. Even if they don’t know Professor Yunus, they’re bound to know President Obama and wonder why we’re displaying a photo of him!
We were led through a door with the sign “Team Members Only” and I immediately had a good feeling about this place. Afterall, it’s not often that you see a place that decides to change the “Employees Only” reference to “Team Members.” I thought these might just be the type of people who will care and be genuinely interested in hearing about our organization and the work we do to alleviate poverty in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in the hallways and offices was equally promising. We set up our posters, passed out summaries of Grameen America, and presented our organization to a group of 20 employees (or shall I say “team members”…). I started off by introducing microfinance and the Grameen Bank model. My colleague Melisa talked about poverty in the U.S. and how Grameen America got started in 2008. After Anne described the process of applying for a loan, Helena gave some stats on the impact and growth we’ve had so far (over 3,500 borrowers and over 97% repayment rate!) and explained the concept of sustainability, which we are on track to achieve. We got a lot of great questions about interest rates, the types of businesses that borrowers open, the criteria for determining if someone is eligible, etc.
Overall, the session was great and a few people walked away with Whole Foods copies of Professor Yunus’ first book “Banker to the Poor” to learn more about Grameen Bank and microfinance. We walked around the store and talked to a few more employees who were unable to join us for the formal session due to work constraints. The store’s Marketing Manager Steven asked us if we would be willing to return tomorrow to set up a table and talk to customers. We had no clue what to expect, but we gladly accepted the challenge!
After sampling a few too many cheeses (is there really such a thing as too much cheese?!) and various cold cuts, me and Melisa walked away with our dinners in hand! Needless to say, the feast of fresh bread, cheeses, meats, olives, and tomatoes that greeted me later that evening was one that made me look forward to tomorrow’s return trip to the market. In one afternoon, we had managed to get some Whole Foods “team members” excited about Grameen America and the work we’re doing in New York City. Now, if only we could figure out how to get through to those busy Goldman customers who will be frequenting the store for lunch tomorrow…