“. . . To be an American”

By Amelia Hill
Online Editor

HenriFeaturePhotoFirst time America-bound in 1976, a Belgium-based student embarked on a life-long adventure. Later, this student would adopt two children from Sri Lanka, marry a Colombian woman, and teach business classes in McDonald Hall. His life, rich in global experience and personal achievements, is a story not to be skimmed over—this is Henri Coëme.

Lesson Learned

“The main obstacle [when working with other countries] is arrogance and egocentricity . . . everybody should act like me otherwise they are different, and I will call them different,” explains Coëme. “To step out from that [was a challenge], and I learned that during my first trip to America.”

Feeling like the underdog because of differences, the “egocentric” student didn’t know if he’d survive an entire year in America. He did. It was hard. And he learned a lesson: take people at their own value, understanding them in their own context, not yours; find common ground.

Success Earned

Ultimately, that lesson learned gave him a competitive advantage, at a young age, for a global career. “I could travel to 50 different countries and be equally at ease in all these countries, with all these people, with all their customs, with all their differences,” he states.

Coëme worked 12 years at the Bank of Brussels, after graduating from the local university (age 21) with a Master of Business Administration. He lived in Brussels, London, Singapore, and New York while working in banking.

About 12 years later, he began work in investment managing for an American company in London.

Another dozen years passed, and Coëme decided to make a career change, applying for a management position. He got the job, moved to Sri Lanka, and restructured the company during a civil war. “It was a little more exciting than I had anticipated,” he laughs. “As if that wasn’t exciting enough, I also decided to adopt my two children—a boy and a girl from Sri Lanka who are now 25 and 21.”

Love Found

“I had to fight for my kids, and not just in the hospital—I had to fight to get them out of the country,” Coëme says. Sri Lanka was in a civil war. Wanting to get rid of him, the country planned to revoke his visa. Simultaneously, Coëme was undergoing the adoption procedure.

The conflict turned into a battle between the adoption agency and the State Department. With the help of the American Embassy and a close friend who was a lawyer, Coëme beat the clock by one day. “That’s my greatest victory in life . . . Everything else pales in comparison.”

Success Earned (America)

Escaping the war in one piece, Coëme immigrated to the United States in 1993. He worked sales and marketing in Kansas City, Springfield, and Pittsburg. Coëme began teaching at Missouri Southern State University in 2008 after teaching an international marketing seminar. He now teaches business on the Neosho campus at Crowder and economics online for the University of Phoenix.

“I love teaching; it’s a challenge for me,” he shares. “It’s a challenge to make complicated things understandable.”

America Defined

Coëme explains, “I didn’t fully appreciate this country as I do now. I had to really immigrate to this country—live here, and make a living in this country.”

He’s grown to love the American spirit, which he describes as a unique opportunity for individualism and entrepreneurship—a rarity to find elsewhere. “It’s a unique convergence of free spirit and a free society with minimalistic rules—just enough to protect yourself, but not enough to suffocate,” he adds. “I think it’s only when you have a bit of distance, in history and in life (getting older), as well as having a little experience with other cultures, you truly learn to appreciate that difference.”

Coëme concludes, “I didn’t know what it meant to be an American . . . Now, I know what it means to be an American.”

What does is mean to be American? Tweet us your thoughts using #AmericaDefined.