When Bing Goei and his parents came to western Michigan in 1960, they were among the first Indonesians to arrive in the region, and their arrival made the front page of the local newspaper. “It must have been a slow news day,” Goei laughs. These days, it’s hardly big news when an immigrant family arrives in Michigan — but for Goei, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who employs 80 people and was tapped by Gov. Rick Snyder to lead the Michigan Office of New Americans (MONA), it’s still something worth celebrating. “These are wonderful and talented and skilled people,” he says. “We have to spread the message that every person who comes here has the ability to contribute in their own way to the enrichment of our society.”
Goei’s own family left Indonesia in the 1950s, after the country’s government started dictating how Goei’s father, a teacher, should run his classes. They forfeited all their belongings, except for what they could cram into a suitcase, and fled to the Netherlands before coming to Michigan as political refugees. For Goei, then aged 12, America was a semi-mythical place, the land of cowboy movies; for his parents, it was a place to start afresh. “America was, and continues to be, viewed by immigrants as a country of opportunity,” Goei says. “That’s what my parents always told us.”
Our contributions have a ripple effect. We pay taxes, we start businesses, and we hire thousands and thousands of people to work in our companies.
Goei’s father found work as a janitor at a floral wholesaler, and Goei and his brothers worked their way through college at the same company. Later, Goei bought out the business, and started selling flowers around Michigan from the back of a truck. Eventually, he branched out into retail, taking over a bankrupt florist chain. His company, Eastern Floral, now has five locations around Michigan, with revenues of more than $5 million a year. That’s a good example, he says, of the benefits immigrants bring. “Our contributions have a ripple effect,” he says. “We pay taxes, we start businesses, and we hire thousands and thousands of people to work in our companies.”
Like many immigrants, Goei says, his parents believed in hard work, and in giving something back to their community. That’s why, with the proceeds from Eastern Floral, Goei founded the Goei Center International Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence, an incubator serving immigrant, minority and women-owned enterprises. So far a handful of companies have “grown and succeeded” as a result of the center’s efforts, Goei says, and neighboring businesses are gaining a new appreciation of the contributions that immigrants make. “With the new immigrants coming to western Michigan, the business community is beginning to realize that there’s an opportunity to grow the economy,” he says.
Goei says he also thought of his parents when in 2014, he agreed to lead the Michigan Office of New Americans — and especially of his father, who spent years as a janitor before qualifying to teach in American schools, and years longer trying to convince his bosses to pay him in accordance with his foreign postgraduate education. “The first time I saw my dad with tears in his eyes was when he told me that story,” Goei says. One of Goei’s top goals at MONA, is to help highly skilled immigrants win recognition of their foreign education and work experience. “We want to make sure there are no artificial barriers preventing the state of Michigan from benefiting from the talents and skills that these immigrants bring to us,” he says.
But making Michigan, and the United States, more welcoming will require more than just state-level initiatives. “Our immigration laws need to be improved,” Goei says. That means making it easier for workers with a variety of skills to come and contribute, but also giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status. “It’s not just a justice issue — we only impoverish ourselves as a nation, as a society, when we don’t allow for the participation of everyone,” Goei says. “When you look at the data, and all the contributions that immigrants have made, it was because we had open, welcoming policies. We need to get back to that.”