97 | theTYPEAhippie Podcast | ChiCast: Running for Michigan State Senate (Anuja Rajendra)

I remember the first time I heard Anuja Rajendra speak. I thought, I must have her on the podcast. She spoke of being a mother to four, a wife, a businesswoman and that she was running for Michigan State Senate. And I thought, "Oh yes you are!" Fast forward several months, I received a mailer about Anuja Rajendra running for Michigan State Senate. I reached out and you get to hear our conversation.

As the daughter of immigrants, a mother, a small business owner, and an activist, Anuja Rajendra's unique life experiences speak to the fabric of Washtenaw County’s vibrant community. She's a problem-solver and she will bring a fresh voice to the Michigan State Senate.

Her father came to Michigan from India with little other than a dream of a better life for their family in 1970. He earned his PhD from Michigan State University and worked as an engineer. Her mother was a schoolteacher in India and later stayed home with her three children. 

She was the first in her family to be born in America. But her parents struggled to make ends meet — something that many working families still know all too well today. So her grandparents cared for her in India for several years and she returned to Michigan at age six.

She has enormous gratitude for what this great state and country offered to her family. That’s why this was the only place she wanted to raise my children. She grew up in Okemos and graduated from public schools there. She was the vice-president of the local chapter of Young Democrats. She went on to earn both an engineering degree and an MBA from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she played rugby.

Anuja's husband, Vijay Sankaran, was from New Jersey, but she convinced him to move to Michigan. They have lived in Ann Arbor for over two decades. They are the parents of two sons and two daughters we adopted after they were abandoned at a train station in India. Her children certainly provided her with plenty of material when she wrote the “Mom” column for The Ann.

In her career in both the private and non-profit sectors and as a volunteer and activist, she has tried to help nurture diverse communities. It has always been important to her to build spaces where people of all ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and genders have come together to find common ground and raise each other up.

Many people in Michigan and across the country are deeply frightened right now. The basic rights of women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color are under attack from the president, Congress, and our state government. Immigrants and refugees now live in fear that they or their loved ones will be hauled away and sent back to war-torn countries.

But even in these trying times, there is hope. It has brought out the best in people. She saw that when she took her eight-year-old son to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. in January 2017. She saw that fighting to keep our kids safe as a member of Washtenaw County's Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

And that’s why, like so many women and people of color, Anuja was inspired to run for office for the first time in 2018. We need progressive, diverse, and inclusive leadership in state government. Washtenaw County should lead by example.

In the State Senate, she won’t be afraid to make bold decisions. Her first bill will be banning most concealed weapons in Michigan. It’s time for progressives to stop playing defense on issues and stand up for our values.

One of my core beliefs is that everyone must have a seat at the table. As a State Senator, Anuja will focus on inclusion to bridge and heal the diverse communities that make up Washtenaw County. And she will be proud to represent an area that she believes can be a model of progressivism, innovation, and intersectionality for all of Michigan.

We all have struggles. Like so many, her parents came here in search of the American Dream. They worked hard so that Anuja and her sisters could go to college and make a difference in the world.

Anuja has tried to honor their sacrifice by earning two degrees at U of M, working in the non-profit sector, starting a small business, and raising a family.

After the birth of her second child, she had a serious health scare. She was given too many opioids while recovering. This led to heart complications. Instead of nursing her newborn and taking care of her 18-month-old, she fought for her life in the Emergency Room. She was able to slowly recover, but had to have in-home nursing care for months.

Fortunately, she never developed an opioid addiction, but this experience gave her an understanding of what far too many families in Michigan are going through. And Anuha was shocked to learn that for all our medical advances, the U.S. still has one of the highest postpartum mortality rates in the world. The rates are even higher for women of color like herself. She could have been one of those statistics. And if her family didn’t have good health insurance, she probably would have been.

That was a very frightening time for her young family. And it ended up inspiring her to start her business, BollyFit, and focus on a humanistic approach to health and wellness as a way to create a more peaceful world.

A decade earlier, she started her first company, Moon-Baked Creations, at age 24. That was just after the untimely death of my sister. The Rachana Rajendra Bird Sanctuary at Michigan State University is named for her in a beautiful tribute. As Anuja was grieving, she decided to help people engage using art as therapy to improve mental health and community connections. She has always tried to emerge from challenges stronger and more determined to help others.

After selling her business, she decided to pursue an MBA at U of M’s Ross School of Business. She established herself as a student leader, serving as president and co-chair of multiple organizations and bringing elite business schools across the country together for a massive food drive. She co-authored a Wharton-published case study on public-private partnerships to help alleviate public health crises. She was honored to be chosen to deliver a commencement speech for her graduating MBA class at Crisler Arena in 2004.

She has years of experience working in the business and nonprofit sectors. She was a successful leader at American Power Conversion Corp., a Fortune 500 company, where she created a customer satisfaction program that was implemented nationally. As Development Director for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, she achieved a record-breaking sponsorship rate, expanding not only the base, but the diversity of donors.

Anuja feels that her life’s work has been to decrease the toxic stress prevalent in society today and improve the lives of people in Michigan, especially underserved and immigrant populations. She has focused on empowering women and children to be healthier mentally and physically, and to realize their untapped potential. She has taken her work one step further by training other men and women so they can improve the health of their own communities.

And so in 2007, Anuja started BollyFit, a fitness and dance studio in Ann Arbor. We have mobilized thousands of Michiganders to feel healthier through grassroots community organizing. She also helped Meryl Davis and Charlie White, two Michiganders on Team USA, win a silver medal for ice dancing at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with a program that bridged cultures.

BollyFit has grown to have a global presence with our empowerment skills training. Anuja has been asked to give speeches about her experiences to several groups, including TEDxDetroit and in a commencement address for Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.   

Learning is a lifelong process and Anuja has always enthusiastically sought out opportunities to expand her knowledge and the efforts of my community.

Helping others has always been a top priority for Anuja. She was appointed to the Governor’s statewide council on physical fitness and the State of Play task force formed by the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation and Aspen Institute on the health and nutrition of Michigan’s youth and underserved populations. In 2015, she received a Congressional Award and was inducted into the Michigan Indian Women’s Hall of Fame for my contributions to health and wellness in Michigan.

She haas volunteered for many schools, libraries, and community service organizations. She has collaborated with nonprofits, small businesses, and schools, such as Beaumont Hospital, Ann Arbor Active Against ALS, and Mitch Albom’s S.A.Y. Clinic, to serve Michigan communities. Anuja is a mentor with Walker’s Legacy, assisting women entrepreneurs. She is also an Ambassador for University of Michigan’s LEAD Scholars Program to support diversity and people of color.

Anuja has been active in progressive and Democratic causes, starting with her time leading the local Young Dems chapter in high school. She has volunteered for Democratic campaigns, including those of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Working at the grassroots level has always inspired her and she's been proud to organize for groups like Moms Demand Action and the Ann Arbor Advocacy Group.

When Anuja decided to run for State Senate in 2018, she was so humbled by the support she received from people from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti and everywhere in between. She knows she is not a household name. She's also not a longtime public official or a party insider.

She's a mom, a small businesswoman, and a problem-solver. And she thinks working people and middle-class families in Washtenaw County are looking for change. They want someone who believes our diversity is our greatest strength and in giving everyone a seat at the table.

She is running for State Senate because we need a new way and a fresh, inclusive voice. That’s what we need in Washtenaw County if we want to make real, meaningful, and progressive change in our state.

Anuja believes in the best in people. And she will never give up. That’s why she wants to be your State Senator.


To connect with Anuja:

* Instagram: @anuja.rajendra

* Twitter: @Anuja_Rajendra