Love of language translates into action

Joe Matthews is engaged in another talkfest.

Streams of words freely flow from Matthews, Vice President of Purchasing and Diversity Officer for Zeeland-based Gentex Corp.

There’s a sense of urgency in his voice as he recounts his uphill struggle to pay for college tuition, adapt to the Japanese culture as a newlywed, recount how his family’s educational legacy shaped his life and what drives his philanthropic work.

Matthews makes it clear he’s not interested in lining his pockets.

“What I want money can’t buy,” says Matthews, 52. “It’s the people you touch and the impact you leave when you’re not there that matters.”

Grandparents’ legacy

With visible delight, Matthews tells how his grandparents’ decision to be part of the Great Migration — that saw a massive wave of African Americans move from the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest and West — spun into his love for knowledge. Other relatives followed their example and became teachers, principals, and nurses.
Joe Matthews, Jennifer Owens and James Bos, Vice President of Global Procurement, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, at a recent interview at Gentex discussing inclusive procurement programs and why eligible businesses should certify as minority business
“That’s where my desire for learning came from,” says Matthews.

That thirst for knowledge led him to learn other languages. Matthews minored in Russian while earning his Bachelor of Science degree at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, because the language intrigued him, and the United States and former Soviet Union were still at odds with each other.

“I took Spanish in middle and high school, and I would have taken Spanish in college, but they didn’t have that program,” says Matthews. “In the late ’80s, the Cold War was still pretty hot and heavy, and I was intrigued by languages. Russian kind of fascinated me.”

Nudging others

Matthews also is fascinated with nudging others to realize their full potential. That’s why he was recently elected to the board of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, a Holland-based nonprofit that provides immigration legal services to anyone, regardless of income.

He also is founder and mentor for The Gathering, a Grand Rapids support group that encourages and uplifts Black male professionals. Since going virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its outreach has broadened to include men from Ohio, Arizona, and California.

Matthews immerses himself with these two organizations because he remembers a time when a mosaic of diversity and opportunity was in short supply.

“I want to continue to make a positive impact in my sphere of influence,” says Matthews. “If we are world class in diversity and inclusion — and we’re not perfect, there’s things we do wrong and things we can do better — we become a natural draw for people who are like-minded.”

‘The only one like me’

This was true for him while a student at Rose-Hulman, where he graduated cum laude in 1991. He then journeyed to Japan for a one-year post-graduate internship with Engineering Alliance for Global Leaders in Education shortly after he and his wife, Vanessa, were married.

Joe Matthews featured in a 1990 issue of Ebony Magazine.
“I’m usually the only one like me who exists,” says Matthews, who also earned a master’s in engineering at Cornell University in 1998 and an MBA at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in 1999.

“When I studied at Rose-Hulman, I was the only Black student in my class of 250 students. The school itself had about 1,200 students. When I worked in Japan, I was the only Black American. In Japan, we had two different cultures to get used to. We were both Black Americans getting used to the Japanese culture, and we had never lived outside of our parents’ houses before (being married), so we had the culture we were creating as husband and wife.”

Matthews has worked at Gentex for 10 years in a handful of capacities, including purchasing manager, director of purchasing and supply chain management, and, now, vice president of purchasing. He took on additional duties as the corporation’s first diversity officer in 2018.


Purchasing and diversity blend at Gentex, a supplier of digital vision, connected car and dimmable glass technologies for the global automotive industry, says Matthews.

“In some ways, there’s overlap,” he says. “With logistics, there’s a sustainability focus. What that means is, as VP of supply and diversity, I do business with all types of suppliers: minority and women business enterprises, and veteran enterprises, as well as LGBTQ businesses.”

Jennifer Owens, President of the economic development nonprofit Lakeshore Advantage in Zeeland, credits Matthews for helping to broaden the range of who is successful in the business community.

“Joe brings great expertise and knowledge to everything he does,” says Owens. “He is an asset to our business community, not only seeing potential in others, but also offering the support needed for success of those around him. I’ve seen this first hand with his work and advocacy with the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council and taking actions to help lift up all businesses. We are better for his leadership and contributions to our community.”

When he’s not working, Matthews enjoys angling on the lakes — walleye is his favorite catch. He appreciates the area’s lower density.

“I love West Michigan because it’s just not crowded,” says Matthews, who lives with his wife of 29 years in Jenison. The couple has three young-adult children. “People are genuinely friendly. There are a variety of activities you can do inside and outside.”

Education and opportunity

Matthews is a firm believer that higher education goes hand in hand with opportunity. He still remembers the seasons of his life punctuated with a struggle to pay for his undergraduate tuition.

He counts it a blessing his fortunes changed when he was featured with other students of color in the October 1990 issue of Ebony magazine. Because of that, he earned a 2.5-year tuition scholarship, worth between $25,000 to $30,000, from General Motors.

“What many people don’t know is that, although I had another scholarship, it was not sufficient, and I was one quarter away from leaving the school because of financial reasons,” says Matthews.

Matthews draws inspiration from his Christian faith, specifically Bible verses Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did for the least of these, brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”; and Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much is expected.”

“That kind of drives how I look at things, not only personally but what I do professionally, particularly from a diversity and inclusion perspective,” says Matthews.
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.