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Shri Thanedar’s American story: From a blue suitcase to the Michigan State House

BY JYOTHSNA HEGDE

“I am going to win another one of these someday,” then 55-year-old Dr. Shri Thanedar promised himself as he packed his Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards along with the personal stuff when the bank foreclosed his home and his business. Life has been an uphill battle, but Thanedar has always enjoyed the climb. He was ready for the next mountain.

Democrat Thanedar, now 65, a scientist, millionaire businessman and author has been elected to the 3rd district of House of Representatives in Michigan with 93 percent votes. He raised a record-breaking $438,620, primarily from his own wealth, in the state House primary against seven other opponents. The former gubernatorial hopeful had won the City of Detroit and earned 200,645 total votes but finished in third place statewide behind current Governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer and former Health Director of Detroit Abdul El-Sayed. Following the 2018 election, an undeterred Thanedar moved from Ann Arbor to Detroit and started a 2020 election campaign for the 3rd District of Michigan House of Representatives. In a virtual interview with NRI Pulse editor-in-chief Veena Rao and this writer, Thanedar spoke about his road to success.

Originally from Karnataka’s Belgaum, his hardships began early on, when his father was forced to retire at age 55 and 14-year-old Thanedar worked odd jobs to support his family of eight and pursue his education.

“Being an elder son, I felt the responsibility to take care of my family, and my sisters’

 weddings.” His job profile included everything from janitor to a cashier at a bank. With a degree in science, Thanedar chose to work at Bhabha Atomic Research Center. Fueled by a desire to pursue his education and career, Thanedar completed his Master’s degree at Bombay University with a gold medal. The government rules at the time required Thanedar to obtain permission from the head of the department, which he had not. So, despite a shiny gold medal, the department neither recognized his Master’s degree nor considered him for a promotion. Beaten but not broken, Thanedar applied for PhD programs in the United States, securing admission and scholarship for a PhD program in chemistry at University of Akron, Ohio in 1979. Fortified with $20 and a Blue Suitcase (Title of his book he authored – The Blue Suitcase: Tragedy and Triumph in an Immigrant’s Life), Dr. Thanedar set out on his journey to the promised land.

“I am going to win another one of these someday,” then 55-year-old Dr. Shri Thanedar promised himself as he packed his Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards along with the personal stuff when the bank foreclosed his home and his business. Life has been an uphill battle, but Dr. Thanedar has always enjoyed the climb. He was ready for the next mountain.

Democrat Dr. Thanedar, now 65, a scientist, millionaire businessman and author has been elected to the 3rd district of House of Representatives in Michigan with 93 per cent votes. He raised a record-breaking $438,620, primarily from his own wealth, in the state House primary against six other opponents. The former gubernatorial hopeful had won the City of Detroit and earned 200,645 total votes but finished in third place statewide behind current Governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer and former Health Director of Detroit Abdul El-Sayed. Following the 2018 election, an undeterred Dr. Thanedar moved from Ann Arbor to Detroit and started a 2020 election campaign for the 3rd District of Michigan House of Representatives. In a virtual interview with NRI Pulse editor-in-chief Veena Rao and this writer, Dr. Thanedar spoke about his road to success.

Originally from Karnataka’s Belgaum, his hardships began early on, when his father was forced to retire at age 55 and 14-year-old Dr. Thanedar worked odd jobs to support his family of eight and pursue his education.

“Being an elder son, I felt the responsibility to take care of my family, and my sister’s weddings.” His job profile included everything from janitor to a cashier at a bank. With a degree in science, Dr. Thanedar chose to work at Bhabha Atomic Research Center. Fueled by a desire to pursue his education and career, Dr. Thanedar completed his Master’s degree at Bombay University with a gold medal. The government rules at the time required Dr. Thanedar to obtain permission from the head of the department, which he had not. So, despite a shiny gold medal, the department neither recognized his Master’s degree nor considered him for a promotion. Beaten but not broken, Dr. Thanedar applied for PhD programs in the United States, securing admission and scholarship for a PhD program in chemistry at University of Akron, Ohio in 1979. Fortified with $20 and a Blue Suitcase (Title of his book he authored – The Blue Suitcase: Tragedy and Triumph in an Immigrant’s Life), Dr. Thanedar set out on his journey to the promised land.

Shri and Shashi Thanedar.

“While I was working on my PhD, my teaching (undergraduates) would give me about $300 a month in stipend. And I would send $75 out of that to Belgaum every month, so my family can put food on the table,” recounted Thanedar. When he graduated is 1982, the economy was down, and he was unable to find a job and settled for a postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was involved in inventing, researching new molecules, and new innovations.

“It is a grand thing to rise in the world. The ambition to do so is the very salt of the earth. It is the parent of all enterprise, and the cause of all improvement,” quoted Anthony Trollope. Fueled purely by ambition, with no capital, no prior experience, or financial backing, Thanedar decided to dive into entrepreneurship!

“The owner, a lady was 65 years old, she wanted to retire. And it was a three-person business for the last 30 years. And I learned about the business from her,” said Thanedar who took up a job working nights and weekends at Chemir/Polytech Laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri in 1990. “I had $3000 on my credit card as a working capital,” said Thanedar when he took out a loan to buy Chemir for $75,000 the following year in 1991.

Sales in the first year were $150,000 with three employees. By 2005, Chemir’s revenues rocketed to $16 million and it employed 160 people, including 40 PhD chemists.

Thanedar borrowed $24 million from Bank of America to finance seven acquisitions, offering the bank a personal guarantee to back the debt. “I went all across America, and bought underperforming companies, chemical testing labs in New Jersey, Michigan, Missouri, Florida, and Colorado. And then I turned these companies around and build a network of testing and innovation labs across the United States,” he explained.  One acquisition, Azopharma, grew rapidly from $1 million in 2003 to $55 million in 2008. Thanedar’s group of companies employed 500 people in 2008.

“I was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year Award by Ernst and Young in 2007. So, everything was going great in 2007,” recalled Thanedar.

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” said Anne Bronte and it was Thanedar’s time to grasp a thorn. The 2007–10 recession did not spate Thanedar’s business. “This business that did a lot of early drug development, early R&D. In hard economic times, nobody wanted to invest in early drug development,” noted Thanedar. During the time, Azopharma’s revenue fell by 70 percent within a year, triggering liquidation proceedings by Bank of America. Azopharma was closed and its assets were sold.

“So, they foreclosed on my home, foreclosed on my business, and collected $30 million. They paid themselves $24 million that I owed. The remaining six million, they kept for fees interest and penalties. And I was left with nothing after building all of these businesses,” said Thanedar. This was in 2010 and he was 55. Crediting his wife for her unwavering support. Thanedar described how his wife took failure in a stride getting him to focus on the fact that they had each other to lean on.

“While I was working on my PhD, my teaching (undergraduates) would give me about $300 a month in stipend. And I would send $75 out of that to Belgaum every month, so my family can put food on the table,” recounted Dr. Thanedar. When he graduated is 1982, the economy was down, and he was unable to find a job and settled for a postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was involved in inventing, researching new molecules, and new innovations.

“It is a grand thing to rise in the world. The ambition to do so is the very salt of the earth. It is the parent of all enterprise, and the cause of all improvement,” quoted Anthony Trollope. Fueled purely by ambition,with no capitol, no prior experience or financial backing, Dr. Thanedar decided to dive into entrepreneurship!

“The owner, a lady was 65 years old, she wanted to retire. And it was a three-person business for last 30 years. And I learned about the business from her,” said Dr. Thanedar who took up a job working nights and weekends at Chemir/Polytech Laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri in 1990. “I had 3000 on my credit card as a working capital” said Dr. Thanedar when he took out a loan to buy Chemir for $75,000 the following year in 1991.

Sales in the first year were $150,000 with three employees. By 2005, Chemir’s revenues rocketed to $16 million and it employed 160 people, including 40 PhD chemists.

Thanedar borrowed $24 million from Bank of America to finance seven acquisitions, offering the bank a personal guarantee to back the debt. “I went all across America, and bought underperforming companies, chemical testing labs in New Jersey, in Michigan and Missouri and Florida, Colorado. And then I turned these companies around and build a network of testing and innovation labs across the United States,” he explained.  One acquisition, Azopharma, grew rapidly from $1 million in 2003 to $55 million in 2008. Thanedar’s group of companies employed 500 people in 2008.

“I was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year Award by Ernst and Young in 2007. So, everything was going great in 2007,” recalled Dr. Thanedar.

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” said Anne Bronte and it was Dr. Thanedar’s time to grasp a thorn. The 2007–10 recession did not spate Dr. Thanedar’s business. “This business that did a lot of early drug development, early RND. In hard economic times, nobody wanted to invest in early drug development,” noted Dr. Thanedar. During the time, Azopharma’s revenue fell by 70 percent within a year, triggering bankruptcy proceedings by Bank of America. Azopharma was closed and its assets were sold.

“So, they foreclosed on my home foreclosed on my business, and collected $30 million. They paid themselves $24 million. The remaining six they kept fees and interest and fees. And I was left with nothing after building all of these businesses,” said Dr. Thanedar. This was in 2010 and he was 55. Crediting his wife for her unwavering support. Dr. Thanedar described how his wife took failure in a stride getting him to focus on the fact that they had each other to lean on.

Shri Thanedar’s mother with his two boys during her visit to the US.

Thanedar recalled collecting his personal stuff like pictures from his home and office. “As I was walking out, I saw these beautiful awards I had won – the Entrepreneur of the Year awards. And I asked the bank if they would mind if I take that with me. And they gave it to me. As I put that into a box, I promised to myself that I’m going to win another one of these someday.” And he did.

Ann Arbor was the next stop on Thanedar’s tumultuous journey. Following a brief retirement in 2010, Dr. Thanedar snapped out later that year to launch Avomeen Analytical Services, an Ann Arbor-based chemical testing laboratory, with his son Neil. “I found a small lab that had also gone out of business. I took it for nothing. They gave it to me because they were afraid there were so many chemicals, they didn’t know what to do.” Thanedar says he nurtured the business as he watched it grow to a 50-employee business with revenues rising from zero to $12 million in 2016. Avomeen was named to the INC 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in the United States in 2015 and 2016. And he received a call from Ernst and Young.

A promise was fulfilled as he was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016. Thanedar has won the same award for the Central Midwest Region (Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska) in 1999 and  2007.

“At that time, I felt I have achieved my American dream. But as I traveled across Michigan, I saw that the American Dream is failing. And more so in Michigan than any other place. At that point, I felt that my family is doing good, but people in my city are not. And with that thought I sold my business, 60% of it, so I can free myself. And I decided to run for governor of Michigan as a Democrat.” On April 5, 2017, he submitted paperwork to raise funds for a potential gubernatorial campaign in Michigan. On June 8, 2017, Thanedar officially announced his candidacy for Governor of Michigan in the 2018 Democratic Party primary.

The very first time into politics and you went for the highest post? we asked. “I wanted to make the most impact,” replied Thanedar. “The purpose of my political run was to improve people’s lives, improve the quality of life for all people. I obviously can’t run for President because I was not born here. The governor’s position controls this large state and lives of 10 million people. And I felt that by running for governor, I can make the biggest impact on the greatest number of people.”  Thanedar said he laid emphasis on education based on his own path to success and also after he noticed that Michigan schools featured at the bottom of the scale in terms of reading skills, math skills in third graders and fourth graders. He wanted to make a difference.

“I’ve done things that nobody thought I could do. I knew the odds were against me,” said Thanedar about his hopes for winning the election. Always inclined to focus on the positives, he went on to highlight the fact that over 200,000 people voted for him to be their governor. “I didn’t win the statewide race, but I won the city of Detroit.”

Having sold his business, Thanedar found his calling in public service and was determined to pursue despite having lost the race for governor. “I realized that state representative is something where I can represent, especially the area of Detroit, where I see the biggest problems in education. We have issues with abandoned homes, water shutoffs for people not able to afford water services, health issues as COVID exposed a lot of illnesses and deaths in the African American community in the city of Detroit.”

“We see some prosperity in downtown Detroit. In the neighborhoods, people’s lives have not changed for generations. And I felt I need to make a difference for those people. I had seen the love and affection of the people of Detroit for me, in the gubernatorial race. And with that, the decision was very easy to move to Detroit in July of 2019. By the end of the year, I announced my candidacy,” said Thanedar about his move from Ann Arbor to Detroit.

How did Thanedar campaign during a pandemic? “I started my campaign almost a year before, because I was an outsider, and because people didn’t know me,” said Thanedar. All his seven opponents began their campaigns in March 2020, when the pandemic kicked in. Getting an early start in October of 2019, Thanedar said he held plenty of get-togethers, community meetings and wrote down 400 different ideas he gathered from the conversations, even before he knew who his opponents were going to be. “I listened and asked questions.”

Where does the 65-year-old draw his indomitable spirit from? The credit, Thanedar says goes to his mother. Married at 18 to a widowed man with daughters 11 and 12 years, almost her age, Dr. Thanedar says his mother raised them as her own. Hailing from a poor family with no education did not stop her from engraining values of integrity and grit into her kids. Thanedar recalled a Diwali during a time the family faced financial hardships, when his mother borrowed a fistful of rice powder, threw it into a pot of boiling water, added salt and served the thick paste to all eight kids. It had been their only meal in 24 hours. “She was strong and always happy. She never lost hope. And I never saw her sad. And never saw her give up. She never let herself down, no matter how hard things got. And I get that from her – to be able to find a way, no matter how hard things are.” Thanedar described his mother, clad in a traditional nine-yard saree at the Ritz Carlton proudly accompanying her son, the Entrepreneur of the Year award winner, who managed to somehow converse with the elite crowd with no knowledge of English. “It was really a highlight of my life.”

A staunch proponent of a $15 minimum wage, does Thanedar identify himself as a socialist? “I don’t know whether it is socialist,” said Thanedar, adding “I feel that there needs to be a minimum standard of life. We are the richest country in the world, and for a portion of our own citizens to live in conditions that are far worse than third world countries. just doesn’t make sense. So, we need to have a level playing field. Some of these things have happened because of systemic racism and some of the people are marginalized, neglected and brushed aside for decades. I believe in fair play, believe in providing all of our citizens the opportunities that they deserve.”

Now that he won the elections, what are the top three priorities for his district? “There is a lot that I want to do. Economic empowerment, promoting entrepreneurship, better quality of education, public safety, and criminal justice reform are some of the things that I am focusing on,” said Thanedar.

“One of my goal is to bring and promote entrepreneurship. I want to create a black Wall Street right here in my district,” said Thanedar. He envisions that the wealth created will be used in the communities that have struggled over the years, much like his own experiences.

His second priority is education. “The educational funding throughout Michigan is very faulty. The funding is based on the number of students. And so, the highly populated schools in richer areas get a lot more education funding than schools like Detroit, where there are not enough kids going there,” noted Dr. Thanedar. His focus is to obtain funds proportionate to the need of the district, and not just the number of students.

Reducing crime is his third priority. “I want people to be able to raise their children in a safe environment. I want to help and create the resources, give the skill set to people so that those who have come out of the prison stay out of prison,” said Thanedar. He also underlines the importance of counseling and addressing mental health issues in high schools.

What are his concerns and plans about the federal government’s role in healthcare given COVID-19 pandemic with regards to health coverage including Medicare and Medicaid?

“I believe that health care is a fundamental right. And every citizen of our nation must receive health care regardless of his or her financial affordability,” said Thanedar. Underlining the fact that close to 30 million Americans are without health care, and sometimes forced to choose between food on the table or buying prescription medicine, Thanedar stressed the need to view it from a humanitarian perspective, urging the federal government to make medicine available and healthcare available to all citizens. Citing health care during COVID times, in particular, he highlighted the fact that 40% of COVID deaths happened in the African American community. He said that systemic racism needs to be addressed in all fields, including health care.

“I’m a state representative, so we don’t deal with immigration as such, but I support a merit-based immigration. I support the H1 visa. I think our industry needs skilled labor. I think we ought to continue to welcome immigrants and we need to have a vision of America that’s bigger and greater for all of us,” he concluded.

“Adversity introduces a man to himself,” quoted Albert Einstein. The humble blue suitcase that sprouted a blue politician (Democrat) in the land of liberty, against all odds, surely bears testament to the statement. These unprecedented times perhaps are meant to reflect upon and reintroduce each of us to ourselves.

Shri Thanedar lives with his wife Shashi Thanedar in Detroit Michigan. He has two 2 sons Neil Thanedar (31) and Samir Thanedar (27), and 2 grandkids Kai (3) and AJ (1).

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