Geoffrey Soyiantet came to St. Louis with about $50 in his pocket.
A winner of America’s Diversity Visa lottery, which randomly selects 50,000 green card recipients from an annual applicant pool of 23 million annually, Soyiantet picked St. Louis because he knew someone here from his native Kenya. But life wasn’t easy when he arrived in 2004. Although Soyiantet held a B.A. in economics, his lack of American education, experience or references made it hard to find a job. Soyiantet enrolled in an MBA program at Lindenwood University, supporting himself by housekeeping at Holiday Inn and washing dishes at the Hilton.
Although he eventually found his footing, Soyiantet was determined to help other Africans avoid the struggles he went through. In 2008, he started providing services that would become Vitendo4Africa, a nonprofit with programs and resources for African immigrants. In 2017, Soyiantet co-founded the African Chamber of Commerce St. Louis, which provides resources for African entrepreneurs. We spoke with Soyiantet about his journey, his organizations and his vision for Africans in St. Louis.
What did you do after getting your MBA? I also did an associate’s degree in billing and coding. I got a job with SSM. When I was at SSM, I was looking at everybody who was coming to St. Louis. I could put myself in their shoes, and I knew the struggle that I went through, trying to find information. It’s hard to find someone who is willing to be a guide. So when I was working, I was pulling all the information together, and sharing it with the African community. Whatever I found that was working for me, I would put it together in an email and send it to people.
How did that grow into Vitendo4Africa? Soon people started sending me email: “Hey, please add me on your email list; hey, I have three other friends, please add them.” And then you help one Nigerian — he reached out to every Nigerian, saying, “You need to talk to this guy.” You meet a Congolese; the Congolese all get involved — it’s just a community; they know each other. I think people thought at one time that Geoffrey knows everything. “You need anything? Call this number.” I was like, “Man, this is really overwhelming.” And I remember getting in trouble with my boss, because of too many calls. So I reached out to a couple of people in the community, and I told them, “Hey, can we make an organization?”
How does Vitendo4Africa help immigrants? Resource coordination has always been the best way to do it. Mostly, we focus on health. We do education. We do also economic development, and that’s where the African Chamber of Commerce comes in — people who want to start a business, they don’t know where to start. We also have people who want to buy their own homes. They don’t know about credit history. So we’re able to get with that person when they’re very green and provide them with the right information from the moment when they arrive. We’ve seen people taking a year to do what some in the past would have done in five, 10 years.
How has Covid-19 affected the African community here? A lot of our people work in those fields that I would call essential. A lot of them are nurses; we have a lot of them working in housekeeping in nursing homes. We have doctors; we have people working in stores. And because of that, we had a lot of cases of Covid-19. We actually had a couple of deaths. The most frustrating part is that we have so many traditions of, if somebody’s sick, you need people around you. If you lose your loved one, people are able to show love because they come and pray, and they have the support of the community. With this situation, it was not there. You have a sick person, you lose a loved one, and nobody can come to give you support and be with you.
How did the local African community react to recent anti-racism protests after George Floyd’s death? We actually organized a group of community members on June 1, when we went for the demonstration downtown, and we donated around 15 cases of water to the demonstrators. One thing that was very encouraging to see was that it was not just the black people who were there. There were people from all diverse backgrounds … it was really very exciting to see that people are ready to bring the change. And that gives us a lot of hope. As an immigrant community, we also want the opportunity to reach out to every American — the African Americans, the Caucasian Americans — and share the values that we bring to the region. Because if you don’t understand the value that the community has, you will always feel like people are coming to take away resources, as opposed to bringing development in the region. And the people that we have — people creating jobs, creating different businesses, sharing different cultures — it’s something that has been a uniting factor.
What else is Vitendo4Africa doing to promote unity? There’s a program we started called Building Momentum Speaker Series. And I speak with a lot of passion about it, because I think that is a way we can address some of the unrest we have right now. We have immigrant professionals come in and share their stories about their journeys as immigrants, and what they’re doing in the region, and what they bring to the community. And that is something that I’ve seen is very worthwhile, because people have come to those events, and they say, “I am glad that I had a chance to hear this, ‘cause I had a very wrong perception about African immigrants.” Whenever we have them, we encourage people to attend. We will be having the next one on Zoom. I think if people are able to get out of their comfort zones and know somebody who doesn’t look like them, doesn’t speak like them, that we will be able to help our region and bring some unity and harmony between these different communities.
MORE ABOUT GEOFFREY SOYIANTET
Title: Founder and executive director, Vitendo4Africa; co-founder and chairman, African Chamber of Commerce St. Louis
Grew up: Nairagie Ngare, Kenya
Lives: In Florissant with wife and three kids
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics from Kenyatta University, MBA from Lindenwood University
Hobbies: Playing soccer, biking, listening to country music