By Javier Valdes
From serving as vice president of publishing operations for a Fortune 500 company, to working for a nonprofit organization while accepting no salary for six years, CEO and President of Garden Pathways Karen Goh is ready for a new challenge in life as she hopes to serve the Bakersfield community in a new way — as Bakersfield mayor.
Born in India and living in England for part of her childhood, Goh didn’t come to know the city that she seeks to represent until she was 7 years old, when she first arrived in Bakersfield.
After attending Bakersfield High School, Goh completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Southern California.
As for the series of events that led Goh to run for Bakersfield mayor, it all started how most great stories begin–with an epiphany.
In high school, all of Goh’s teachers had different plans mapped out for her life.
“They wanted me to be a musician, another wanted me to be a journalist, and another one a doctor. So I actually started off a pre-med major,” said Goh. “One day, while I’m at SC, I’m sitting at a concert–the Danzi Woodwind Quintet, and I had my epiphany, ‘You know I think I’m going to go for music.,’ so I called my parents and I say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m going to change my major…to music.’”
After listening to her instinct and moving on to music, Goh had the opportunity to meet the person she sees as her mentor and the woman she credits with opening the doors to her career, Katinka Daniel.
Daniel, the protégé of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, took Goh under her wing investing in her time that until today Goh believes “is the time we should invest in others.”
During her time as a graduate student, Goh would spend time in Daniel’s Santa Barbara home learning from her mentorship.
When Daniel asked Goh to appear on a national conference where she was serving as keynote speaker, Goh accepted the opportunity and presented in the program.
“I presented there, and during that time a publisher from New York was in the audience, at that point it was MacMillan publishing company. We connected there and asked me if I would become a consultant and I was recruited to go to New York,” said Goh.
Goh moved to Alpine, New Jersey and worked on the development of music textbooks for the publishing company. What she thought would be a five to six-month job became a career for her.
Goh moved to New York and from there she advanced in the corporate world. Starting as a consultant, Goh moved up to executive director, then to editorial director, managing editor, vice president of editorial administration, vice president of administration and finally vice president of publishing operations.
Goh continued to climb the ladder of success within her company, but soon came a real turning point in her life. On September 11, 2001, Goh witnessed the terrorist attacks that plagued America.
As Goh arrived at her office on the 21st floor, her assistant informed her of the first plane crash that hit the World Trade Center. At first, Goh believed the attack to be a mechanical failure. It wasn’t until she saw the second plane crash that she knew that it was not an accident.
“What I realized on that day was how similar we are on the inside, on my wing there were a lot of educated people… people who had money, power,” said Goh. “But on that day, when all that stuff was stripped away, it didn’t matter whether you worked in a mailroom or whether you were the V.P. five times over and had Armani shoes, we were all the same.”
The reality Goh saw that day made her realize how short life was and is something that heavily impacted her life moving forward.
In 2004, Goh’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and was given a short time to live. Goh came back to Bakersfield to be with her mother during her last days.
During her time in Bakersfield Goh became involved in Garden Pathways, a community-based nonprofit organization that aims to mentor children, youth and adults to build better and more productive lives.
“As I became involved with that [Garden Pathways], we were working with people that had gone through really hard times, people who wouldn’t have much of a future, who didn’t have a lot of hope,” said Goh. “But I could see as we invested in their lives, as we paired them with mentors, as we really cared about them and moved them along in their journey, how we could change the future of their family forever.”
Goh came to a predicament when the board of Garden Pathways asked her to join them as their executive director. Choosing to leave the city life was a hard decision for Goh, so she made her pros and cons list and even though her friend advised her that leaving the city would be “career suicide,” Goh chose to join Garden Pathways.
“As I started reflecting back on the brevity of life and the opportunity to invest in lives, I had to say, ‘What’s the value of a pair of $500 Prada shoes, compared to human life?’…and so I made the choice to come back here,” said Goh.
Garden Pathways didn’t have the funds to pay Goh the type of salary that she was used to in New York’s corporate world. Goh chose to accept no salary for six years, instead opting to change her lifestyle and living off savings.
After years of working for Garden Pathways, Goh was presented with yet another opportunity. In 2010 the 5th district board of supervisor’s seat became vacant, and friends asked Goh to consider interviewing for the position.
Although Goh says that she never had any ambitions to be involved in politics, she did see this opportunity to expand the scope of what she was doing for the Bakersfield community.
Goh got the position as the 5th District Kern County Supervisor, where she was introduced to government.
In 2013, after Goh finished serving as county supervisor she returned to Garden Pathways as CEO and President of the nonprofit.
It wasn’t until Mayor Harvey Hall declared that he would not be running for another term as mayor, that Goh decided that she wanted to run for Bakersfield mayor.
The thought of serving and giving back to the community heavily influenced her decision to run for the coveted position.
Goh looked back on the preparation in her life, her experience in corporate high-level decision making, her involvement in the community and her experience as county supervisor, before deciding that she wanted to continue that involvement but this time on a much broader scale.
Goh believes that her involvement in the community has prepared her to understand better the people she hopes to represent.
“I am equally as comfortable in a board room out at Seven Oaks, as I am sitting on the river bed with my arm around a homeless person,” said Goh. “And I’ve gone out, I had somebody take me out and say ‘nobody from government has ever come out this far.’”
Connecting with the Bakersfield community and better understanding the less fortunate and those who have had tough lives, is something that Goh hopes to continue.
“Here’s another way I can give back to the community on a broader scale, to take all of this experience and to be an encourager, a facilitator, and not only a red ribbon cutter…but also a red tape cutter,” said Goh. “
However, Goh’s campaign goes beyond understanding the Bakersfield community. Goh seeks to take what is already great about Bakersfield and build upon it to make it an even greater city.
“As mayor…I can bring those areas of business development, government services, and community involvement; to focus on economic development, safe neighborhoods, and also for job training,” said Goh.
Goh has a vision for the city of Bakersfield and hopes that she can see Bakersfield evolve that vision into a reality.
“I see a city teaming with production, commerce, lively arts, safe and clean and affordable neighborhoods, thriving business, all supported by an efficient and responsive city government,” said Goh.
Goh seeks to raise the bar higher in job creation and job development, technology, healthcare, retail and in downtown business development.
As for what drives the mayoral candidate, Goh credits her parents for instilling in her the values that build her core foundation.
“From a very early age my parents instilled in me the core values of the importance of family, always working your hardest, the importance of a good education, and then the value of faith, which today remains the foundation for all my decision,” said Goh