Hidden from the majority of the pedestrian traffic on the third floor of Ballston Common Mall, International Bazaar sells international gifts from 39 countries.
If the store looks familiar to passersby, it’s because the Bazaar is one of Ballston’s inaugural stores when the mall was opened in 1986. While the store boasts artifacts from around the world with interesting back stories, it is possible that none of them have a story as interesting as the store’s owner, Vinod Goel.
Since emigrating to the United States in 1961 from India, Goel has worn many hats in his five decades: founding president of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, media mogul, international marketing professor, and an unofficial advisor to the India desk of the Peace Corps.
“We call him the professor around here,” says George Wong, owner of American Formal Wear, located three doors down. “He’s a mentor for the people around the mall and in the local area. He helps people find higher education and opportunities, especially for foreigners.”
“If I were to say one word about him, the word would be ‘visionary,’” said his daughter Nita Goel Popli. “He really helped to establish this community when he came here.”
Goel was a master’s student and a respected photojournalist from the Indian state of Rajasthan when he was intrigued by a travelling exhibit that came to his college entitled “Life in America.” With the advice of a noted visiting economist, Goel came over to the United States in 1961. He was 27 years old.
While an MBA student at the University of Maryland a year later, Goel was one of a number of international students invited to the White House. With just thirty seconds to make his mark on President Kennedy, Goel used his time to encourage him to put India on his agenda.
“I told him point blank ‘ how come I’m not seeing in your tour horizon a trip to India’, ” said Goel who proudly notes that within a few months President Kennedy sent his wife on a trip to India.
It was at that meeting that Goel heard about the Peace Corps. He walked into the Peace Corps Office in D.C. and talked to Sargent Shriver about the India program. This led to a correspondence that lasted for a couple years.
“He had the perspective to help the living standards in this world,” said Goel about Shriver. ”He was a real humanitarian. Born American and citizen of the world.”
From 1969 to 1989, Goel taught international marketing at Bowie State University but he continued to remain passionate about creating and strengthening the Indian community.
His wife, Sudarshan, who joined him in the U.S. a year after he emigrated, had a background in radio broadcasting. She became a notable on-air radio talent when she was hired as the first female anchor of the Voice of America’s Hindi service in 1969.
With his wife’s expertise and his entrepreneurial instincts, Goel and his wife founded Vivdh Bharti, the country’s first Hindi radio program in the Washington D.C. area. In its 20 years on the air, Al Gore, Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy have been guests on the program. The program was also featured on CNN in 2002 as the nation’s longest running Hindi program.
“The radio program was entirely funded by my mom and dad. It was their community service gift. They cared deeply about the community and felt very strongly about preserving the language,” said daughter Nita Goel Popli, who has also served as a host on the program.
In addition, Goel started the D.C. area’s first Indian-American community newspaper, Overseas Tribune, and was the founding president of the Indian American Chamber of Commerce. Goel’s dedication to community service also led him to serve as a founding director of First Liberty National Bank, the first Indian-American-owned community bank in Washington, D.C.
International Bazaar was initially bought by Goel for his father to manage in 1973. Before it moved to Ballston Common Mall, the store’s initial incarnation was in New Carrollton. Since his father passed away in 2008, Goel has been the sole manager.
Goel originally saw the store as an extension of his work teaching international marketing to his students at Bowie State University and University of Maryland.
“You have to pinpoint what the things that represent the nation,” Goel said. “I did not [buy] the tourist items, I bought unique items representing those countries.”