Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was speaking to an audience in Monte Carlo’s majestic opera house at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
The Bangladeshi economist described how he started collatoral-free lending to the poor in the 1970s to provide an alternative to loan sharks who were preying on rural villages.
Today, Grameen Bank has more than 8.4m borrowers, 97 per cent of whom are women, and lends more than $1.5bn a year. It has a repayment rate of 98 per cent.
Professor Yunus has launched more than 50 not-for-profit companies, including several joint ventures with multinationals, in an effort to solve social problems across the world.
He said: “Capitalism is all about choices. But when it comes to business, there is only one choice - to make money.
“I am enhancing the capitalist system by creating another option. Every business can run a parallel social business. It could change the world.
“All the creative power in the world is with companies. If you use this creative power, all the problems will be solved.
“You don’t have to stop your businesses, only do something parallel to something you already do.”
Prof Yunus said humans are misrepresented in the global capitalist system, which rewards selfishness, rather than selflessness.
He added: “It has a built-in tendency to suck up juices from the bottom and pump it up to the top. The bottom is getting dryer and dryer. We need a counter balance.”
Prof Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
The 14th annual EY World Entrepreneur of the Year is taking place in the tiny principality Monaco this week with a full programme of events and activities for the 1,000 or so delegates.
Other speakers include Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, Martha Stewart, the American TV show host, author and entrepreneur, and Hamdi Ukulaya, the founder and chief executive of Chobani, the number one-selling Greek yoghurt brand in the United States and last year’s overall winner.
This year’s winner will be announced at a glittering ceremony tomorrow night.
The 51 contenders congregated on the terrace of the Hermitage hotel overlooking the sparkling waters of the Cote d’Azur yesterday afternoon for a group photocall.
Together they have created companies with combined revenues of $32bn and a total headcount of 150,000.
Yorkshireman James Lambert, the chairman and co-founder of R&R Ice Cream, Europe’s largest own-label ice cream manufacturer, is representing the UK.
He told The Yorkshire Post that he felt very humbled to be involved.
Mark Weinberger, the global chairman and CEO of event organiser EY, said: “What you all do in creating jobs, in building economic growth, in driving innovation and in creating creativity is what drives our global economy.”