A shot of the art and décor at the West Michigan Asian American Gala at the Goei Center in Grand Rapids. Photo via fb.com
A group of Grand Rapids professionals — both long-time residents and more recent transplants, from varying backgrounds, races and ethnicities — joined together at the Goei Center recently to answer the question, “How can we make Grand Rapids an international hub?”
“We are excited about this event, because what we wanted to do tonight was gather some information from you about how you see Grand Rapids and West Michigan as it is today, and how you would like to see Grand Rapids and West Michigan look five years from now,” said Bing Goei, Eastern Floral CEO and one of the night’s organizers.
As Goei pointed out in his opening remarks, often in this community, brainstorming sessions around inclusion and making the city a more welcoming place don’t reflect the diversity of the community.
That is one of the main reasons the primary organizers for the brainstorming session — Goei, Sai Naik, CEO and chairman at Mavin Global Company, Paul Doyle, founder of Paul Doyle & Associates and Mike Jandernoa, former CEO and chairman of Perrigo — believe their efforts will be more successful than others.
The link between becoming an international hub and the need for a more inclusive, diverse and culturally competent community was made repeatedly throughout the evening.
“One of the things that we want to do as we move forward is to help create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that utilizes all of your talents,” Goei said. “One of the things that we will talk about is the slogan, ‘We want to build it in West Michigan, and we want to sell it in the world.’
“We want to make sure that all the entrepreneurs and small business and mid-size business owners who are in this room, and those that are thinking about starting a business, recognize that the world is now your market,” Goei said. “It isn’t just local or statewide or region wide or nationwide, the world is going to open up for you, and we want to listen to you share with us how you see Grand Rapids and West Michigan being able to accomplish that, as well as how you would like to contribute to that process with us.”
Teams "making a difference"
Goei was among a group of Grand Rapids business leaders, including Naik, Doyle and Jandernoa, who ventured out to San Diego recently to learn about the Connect program, which is a regional program that catalyzes the creation of innovative technology and life sciences products in San Diego County, by linking inventors and entrepreneurs with the resources they need for success.
The Connect program has been in existence since 1985 and has assisted in the formation and development of more than 3,000 companies, according to its website.
“Bing and I, and 10 others, went out to San Diego to look at how they do it,” explained Jandernoa. “They have this group called Connect out there, and they’ve got this ecosystem that they want to build in terms of making that difference in San Diego. We got excited about it. We believe that with same concept, that Connect concept, that we can create that ecosystem here in West Michigan.
“Part of that process of creating that ecosystem is we need to know what it is really like throughout the West Michigan community,” added Jandernoa. “All of us can see what we experience, but not the entire community of West Michigan . . . people of different backgrounds, nationalities, experiences, how welcoming are we as a community? How supportive?”
To be globally competitive, Jandernoa said, Grand Rapids must develop an ecosystem that is welcoming and inclusive to people from all races and all parts of the world.
Jandernoa highlighted Perrigo’s recent acquisition of Irish company Elan as an example.
“This whole idea of transforming this small drug company in Allegan, Michigan to a global international company requires a significant change of makeup of the organization and employee base, and in order to have that happen, we’ve got to have a community here that can support that,” Jandernoa said.
“It is not only this ecosystem that we want to build for the entrepreneurs,” Jandernoa said. “It’s an ecosystem that we need to build for the entire organization, whether it be an Amway or Steelcase or Perrigo that needs to have this kind of community here, where people can come here and have their opportunity to be successful, make their commitment and make their mark and enjoy being here, feel comforted and supported by the communities.”
Naik shared a personal story of growing up and watching his father, who was known in his small community as the “Indian Elvis,” transcend difference, in part, through his love of Elvis Presley music.
“There are so many things like diversity programs and diversity efforts and so many checkmarks and checkboxes, but what I realize is in that moment when people from different backgrounds got to spend time with my dad, even though he looked different, they realized that there’s not that much difference out there, they cared about what he thought, what he said,” Naik said.
Becoming more international
Naik noted five key indicators of success for turning Grand Rapids into an international hub.
1. International business: increase international business relationships within West Michigan.
2. Inclusive: increase the opportunity for entrepreneurial startups through the utilization of all talents from within our communities.
3. Innovation: enhance the development of innovative products and services through diversity of thought.
4. Integrity: retain highly talented and skilled professionals from culturally diverse backgrounds who will commit to enhance the richness of our community.
5. Inspiration: enhance the magnetism of our community and inspire others by “being the change we want to see in others.”
Naik challenged attendees to, “Paint a picture of what you want West Michigan to look like.”
Brainstorming participants spent a solid hour identifying the positives that Grand Rapids already has to offer, as well as the areas for improvement that would help the community attract more talented people from around the world to the city.
No future meeting dates have been set, but Naik and Goei indicated that a follow-up meeting to the brainstorming session will occur, and that this is a long-term vision that will involve many additional meetings as ideas are developed into more concrete goals and actions.