There’s an effort underway to strengthen support for Asian-owned businesses in West Michigan.
Bing Goei, owner of The Goei Center and Eastern Floral, is leading an effort to strengthen the West Michigan presence of the Farmington Hills-based Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce.
Before beginning service as board chair of APACC in April, Goei was approached by Minnie Morey of the Asian American Association of West Michigan about the need for greater business support locally.
Goei, whose family arrived in West Michigan 60 years ago, has seen the diversity of businesses and business owners change over the years, but he’s noticed the contributions of Asian Americans and refugees often are left out of that discussion.
There is a consistent lack of Asian American representation on economic development teams or study committees throughout the area, he said. He believes it will be important to “truly diverse” groups who can implement new ideas and strategies to mend that issue going forward.
“I do think that Grand Rapids, West Michigan as a whole, can do a much better job of encouraging a more diverse business community, but it cannot happen if there is no intentionality about making it happen,” he said. “We can't just assume that it’s going to happen by osmosis.”
Because relationships with the Asian business community by existing local organizations have been limited historically, Goei and others believe it’s time to have an Asian-focused chamber. The plan is to collaborate with other area chambers and organizations, however.
“I think that it can be done, and that's why I think it's very important that we establish a strong presence and visibility of the Asian chamber in West Michigan,” Goei said.
The time is now, he said, especially because of the significant economic contributions the Asian community makes to West Michigan.
A 2018 study by New American Economy found that in 2012, Asian American-owned businesses made up nearly 52% of the $951.5 million in sales generated by Asian, African and Hispanic Americans in Kent County.
In 2016, immigrants made up about 8% of the county’s population. People of Mexican origin made up the largest share of the immigrant population, at 24.7%, followed by Guatemalans at 8.3%. Natives of Vietnam are the most-represented Asian country, making up 7.8% of the immigrant population.
Rather than creating a new Asian-focused chamber, Goei said he thinks it makes more sense to expand the one the state already has. Duc Nguyen Abrahamson, APACC executive director, said there are no physical boundaries for the APACC within the state, and there already are several members based in West Michigan.
Goei said there has been significant interest not only from Asian businesses but also from non-Asian businesses because they realize the Asian market is growing locally.
“They’re companies who do want to do business with the Asian community because that is a pretty vibrant, economically strong community,” Goei said.
With the ongoing lack of talent in Michigan and throughout the country, West Michigan cannot afford to let resources go by the wayside, he said.
“If we are truly serious about attempting to increase our talent pool, we must find a way to ensure that we establish a better model for including and creating opportunities for international talent,” Goei said.
Goei said he has realized there are pockets of Asian business communities throughout West Michigan that even he was unaware of. He hopes APACC can bring them all together.
Based on what has worked in southeast Michigan, Goei said APACC plans to bring “networking with a purpose” to the region.
“Part of our cultural tradition is we want to do business with people we know and have confidence in. So, that networking is a very important piece and step in that journey of building a trusting relationship with each other,” Goei said.
“We're more relational than transactional.”
At the end of the day, he said it’s APACC’s goal to “create the infrastructure that allows for those connections to come to an actual deal” by providing resources.
To start, APACC is planning three networking events this year. Nguyen Abrahamson plans to establish a physical office locally and hire a staff member who can ramp up operations and grow APACC’s presence.
Goei said he understands that all businesses must earn the trust of new customers before they are willing to spend hard-earned dollars. In turn, he asks that residents keep an open mind about visiting new businesses, not allowing themselves to be influenced by “negative stereotypes that are being promoted by national media and some national leaders.”
“We would invite them to at least join us and when we have some events to know more about us,” he said.
He said it will be important for the Asian community to step up its own willingness to share more about what it’s doing, striving to continue enriching the economy and the cultural diversity of West Michigan.
As a business owner and former leader of the Michigan Office for New Americans, Goei said he often reminds friends in leadership positions: “You need to expand your role to help us all understand and value the contributions that every community brings.”