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RapidChat: Bing Goei

Bing Goei

Bing Goei holds a new title, Director of the Office for New Americans, but he's still focused on his life's work of promoting and supporting small business and racial equity. When Bing immigrated to the United States at age 11, he expected to find the "cowboys and Indians" he'd enjoyed on TV, but instead found the American dream. Read on for his perspectives on minority-owned businesses, neighborhood investment, and the value of diversity.
Rapid Growth: These days you spend the majority of your time working to make Michigan a better place for immigrants. Was this always on your radar?

Bing Goei: No, racial justice, racial equity became part of my life later, when I was in my mid-thirties. I sold my wholesale flower business and accepted a call to ministry. I was the first non-Caucasian Executive Director of the Synodical Committee on Race Relations for the Christian Reformed Church.

I was asked by the pastor to serve on the board for racial reconciliation and I wondered, why does a Christian church have to deal with this? Through that process I began to learn more about the injustices that occur to people simply because of their ethnic or racial identity.

What actually affirmed to me that I needed to take this position, which I held for seven years, was when my father came to me and I never saw him cry but he had tears in his eyes. He said, “I just want to tell you how proud I am of you.” Then he told me his story, what happened to him when he first got to the U.S.

He was an educator all his life, had a master's degree, was principal of a school. When he got to the U.S., none of his credentials transferred. He went back to school and received teacher certification. When he began to teach he was given the same level of compensation as a new teacher with an undergraduate degree. He didn’t complain about that; he figured if it was how the U.S. worked, he was ok with it.

A few years down the road he became one of the most popular sixth grade teachers. The district was expanding so they hired another teacher, an immigrant from Europe. He and my dad became friends because they were outsiders. My dad found out the new teacher got all of his credentials given to him and was given the pay level associated with those credentials and his years of experience.

So when my dad told me that I said, “Why didn’t you tell us that happened to you?” My dad replied, “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to think you couldn't do everything and anything you wanted to do in the United States.”

I then promised my dad I would do everything I could to make sure no one has to be humiliated like he was. So that’s how a passion for racial justice and equity became part of me.

RG: Your career has been in the wholesale and retail flower businesses - why? Are you passionate about flowers? Or is that because you lived in The Netherlands as a child?

BG: I hate gardening! I have no passion for flowers. I think they’re beautiful. I have no idea how to design. I know what a beautiful design looks like but I don’t know how to get there. I’m smart enough to know when I’m not smart so I just hire good people.

In 1997 I bought my first retail flower shop. In 2001 I bought Eastern Floral from a bankruptcy situation. I took it over and tried to rebuild the company. The founder had sold it to a national chain and it spiraled downhill.

Here’s the interesting thing. When we arrived in Grand Rapids we had to be sponsored by an organization or family. Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church was our sponsor because my brother was an international student at Calvin College.

One of the deacons that helped settle our family was Frank DeVos, owner and founder of Eastern Floral. He was instrumental in getting my dad his first job as a janitor at a local wholesale flower business. My brothers and I worked through high school and college at that wholesale flower business.

RG: Wow, that really came full circle.

BG: Im a Christian, so my perspective is: nothing happens by chance, God is in control of everything. When I stepped in to buy Eastern Floral, I asked Frank DeVos to be my consultant. He stayed with me for a while. The guy’s an institution in this community. He passed away last year.

RG: You’ve lived in West Michigan since age 11. Did you ever think of leaving? What kept you here?

BG: I married a young lady, also an immigrant, born in The Netherlands. In fact, she says, “Bing chased me around the world.”

My family moved to The Netherlands in 1954; she left The Netherlands in 1953. We lived in the Hague; she lived in a suburb of the Hauge. She and her family moved to Grand Rapids and went to Fuller Avenue CRC. We arrived at Fuller Avenue CRC in 1960, (when) her family had just left to move to the Northeast side of Grand Rapids where they started attending East Leonard CRC. When we moved from Fuller Avenue and my parents bought their first house on the Northeast side of town, we started attending the East Leonard CRC and that’s where I finally met her.

There was never any reason for me to leave. I started my business here. I attended college here but I dropped out in my fourth year. I was bored with it. There were no teaching jobs. We were just married and I decided to go into business.

I tell all my kids, they better graduate from college. In my era, you could get away with it. You can’t get away with it today. You better have a college degree today.

RG: You have five children and twelve grandchildren. What do you like to do as a family?

BG: We love vacationing together. We used to have a cottage; we would go there every summer. We are in different parts of the Midwest so we want the cousins to play together. For our 45th anniversary this year, the whole family is going to a waterpark.

RG: When did you start the Goei Center? Where did you get the vision for it?

BG: The official grand opening was November 2009. We bought the building in 2006 but didn’t start the renovation until 2008.

I knew this building, the former Kindel Furniture Factory on the west side, was the right one for Eastern Floral. People thought I was nuts. They wondered why would Eastern Floral, a high-end florist, go into this neighborhood. For me, it was a business decision. It’s near the highways, close to downtown. We make a lot of deliveries to the hospitals. Traffic patterns were much easier here.

Our value system is that whatever we do, we want to make sure we improve and enrich what we started with. We knew it wasn’t the nicest neighborhood but we thought, maybe we can be a catalyst for change.

I was going to bulldoze the building -- it was the ugliest thing in the world. My architect said, “You need to bulldoze it.” My friend said, “No, you don’t; it will look nice when it’s all cleaned up.”

Luckily I listened to my friend. We renovated the building.

The whole event center was never on my radar. I just figured we’d renovate, build offices, and rent office space. Summer 2009, before our official grand opening, UICA was still in their old building and they wanted to use our building for a fundraiser. All the artists liked the feel of this building. I said oh sure, no problem.

The caterer who catered the event asked me if I would let him rent the facility out. He said, “I can rent the facility every weekend if you'd let me.” He made me a business plan, said this is what an event center business should look like. Instead of building offices we decided to see if that would work. Now we have events every week. We also use the space for helping small businesses.

RG: The International Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence provides space and a platform for small businesses to be successful, all based at the Goei Center. How did you get the idea to incubate small businesses?

BG: It’s all part of my passion for racial equity and justice.

I will tell you and I think people will affirm this, the business leaders in this community understand that the one weakness we have in West Michigan is we don’t have enough minority-owned businesses. It’s a cultural issue. It brings a potential barrier - an albatross - to become even better economically.

If we don’t have the diversity of businesses here, companies that are international don't want to bring their people here.They’re looking for diversity. People are beginning to understand how important this is. I’ve always been on this bandwagon, leading the parade on this issue for a long time in this community.

I decided I had so much space I could dedicate a whole wing to these businesses. I do have white male-owned businesses here. I have a passion for small business, but I also have a passion for helping the underserved populations to become a major part in this community.

I’m starting several new programs. We have a grant requested to the Kellogg Foundation. The focus is to help families get out of poverty in this neighborhood. I went to the mayor and asked him to lease me, for a dollar a year, a few acres of the Butterworth landfill just south of us. You can’t do anything on the property anyway, you can’t break the cap. So I said, let me build lightweight greenhouses and let’s let the neighborhood grow flowers, herbs, vegetables. Eastern Floral will buy the flowers. We will figure out how to connect the growers to farmers markets, restaurants, whatever it takes.

I’m also working with a few local leaders in establishing a private microloan funding program to intentionally support the development of minority-owned businesses in Grand Rapids. The goal is to raise a minimum of $1,000,000. The idea came about after the annual Partners for a Racism-Free Community conference. Maggie Anderson and I were keynote speakers. I had to follow her. She had just talked about her incredible project - The Empowerment Experiment - where she and her family made a one-year commitment to support black businesses exclusively. She lives in Chicago and it was a major challenge.

RG: She’s going to be a speaker at TEDxGrandRapids talking about that initiative. I’m looking forward to it. So, how did you follow that?

I got up there next and asked the audience, “How long would you survive if you did this in Grand Rapids?”

What I’m trying to say is that whatever we do here, in Grand Rapids, in Michigan, we need to recognize the value that a diverse business community brings. We need to bring that message out there and start talking about it again. We can’t lose sight of it.

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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