Season 1, Episode 29

Breaking barriers and building bridges


Rep. Padma Kuppa


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Today’s Guest

In today’s episode I am speaking with Michigan State Representative Padma Kuppa.


 State Rep. Padma Kuppa is serving her first term in the Michigan House of Representatives and has been re-elected to a second term representing Michigan’s 41st House District, which encompasses the cities of Troy and Clawson. She currently serves as Assistant Minority Whip for the House Democrats.

Prior to this, her career as an engineer and project manager spanned the automotive, financial, and IT industries. Kuppa has also been a civic leader, volunteering with the PTA, founding the Troy-area Interfaith Group, and serving on Troy’s Planning Commission. She is currently President of the Troy Historical Society and a board member of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion.

Rep. Kuppa currently champions issues for several legislative caucuses, including Labor, Education, and Mental Health. She serves as Co-Chair of the Progressive Women’s Caucus Equal Pay Task Force, Co-Chair of the Asian-Pacific American Caucus, and Historian of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus. Rep. Kuppa is also a member of the MiSTEM Council and Governor Whitmer’s Prescription Drug Task Force.

She is the first Indian immigrant and Hindu in the Michigan Legislature.


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If you have a comment or question please reach out to me at or on Instagram @gladiatrixpodcast


Padma Kuppa

 Get This Episode

Malini Sarma 0:01

Hey Padma, thank you so much for being on the show today. I'm really, really excited to have you here because I know there are a lot of young women, well,

Unknown Speaker 0:10

not young, we're

Malini Sarma 0:11

young and old, or women in general, who are really, really looking forward to listening to your story. So thank you so much for taking the time to be here today.

Padma Kuppa 0:20

Thank you so much for having me, Malini, especially since we've known each other for so long. It's nice to be able to actually talk about what got me here and, you know, to share it with share the story with you.

Unknown Speaker 0:31

Yes, yes,

Malini Sarma 0:32

thank you. So, because I know I know, a lot of we all know where you are today. But I really did want to bring out the story of, you know, where you where you were, and how you came to be, just so that they can understand the the journey that you've taken and that, you know, there are other women who I'm sure could be really inspired by this. So you are not born in the US. But you did come here for the education. So you want to give us a little quick background about you know, oh,

Padma Kuppa 1:01

yeah, sure. So actually, My story starts with education, but not mine, my parents education. So my father is a, an English major, and he came to the United States in 1969. To pursue graduate school here as an English major. He had been studying at our university and had been teaching in Mysore and Hyderabad and other places, BITS Pilani. And my mom and I followed him a year later. And we lived in Stony Brook a university town in New York, I started kindergarten, I didn't actually know a lot of English When I came here, because we've lived in Mysore. I knew Kannada, I knew Telugu my mother tongue even knew a little bit of Hindi, but not much English. And so I had done LKG in Bhilai which was a city that I was born in. And the the joke goes that I always said Miss Miss Mullu tooth, because Miss was the way you address the teacher. mulu is the Telugu word for the pencil, you know, nib and tooth is the Hindi word broken. So right. So that's how confused I was language wise when I came here. And then I started kindergarten and my best friend was a young little blonde girl that whose grandparents would take me out to spaghetti for dinner, Italian restaurant for and, and, you know, I learned how to navigate not only the English language, but also being American. And my mom went to graduate school, got her PhD and I saw her do that and, and be very strong because she she had grown up in a very sheltered family, she got married when she was 18 had me when she was 19. And the base at home was that they my parents both volunteered in different things. My father actually used to go to PTA meetings back then in the 70s. You can Wow. And, and so I learned volunteering from them. And my mom would take me with her when she had to do science experiments as part of her grad school work, she would go to do science stuff with in local elementary schools. And, and and we were not that involved in the Indian community, the landscape there was most Indians did their graduate work, and then went on and became, you know, middle class with a white picket fence, kind of but my parents stayed in the graduate kind of school environment. I lived in MIT and lived lived in Boston for a couple of years, lived in the Washington DC suburbs for a year, as my mom did her postdoc and my father figured out where he wanted to live because he was kind of a writer and creative. And so finally, in 1981, we moved back to India. I was at the end of 10th grade, and I did not want to go,

Malini Sarma 3:51

can imagine.

Padma Kuppa 3:52

And they refuse to take a green card. Many of their peers were doing that because they were also trying to figure out how to navigate with their children. And so they took citizenship or green cards and they move back and my father said, I am about at the I will not become an American and my brother was born in this country, and it would have been, you know, like a snap of the fingers. They could have gotten their their green card, but then my mother said we would have to come back. And I want to make it work in India. And then we have this lifeline to come back. We're not going to make it work. So he and my mom joined institutions educational and research institutions in India. He's he had his money in university, my mother at ccnb Center for cellular and molecular biology. I joined jet Stanley girls junior college and Hyderabad. And people made fun of me for my accent. So I quickly figured out how to have an Indian accent, right. I saw my brother start school. I tried to get into engineering into one of the IITs, I took those very famous Agarwal training and couldn't get in because you know, the system here was so different from the system in India, right. And many of my parents friends who had tried they came back actually because their kids couldn't now navigate the Indian system. And so I did and not only did I get in and second round, I got into a nit what is now known as nit at REC Warangal at the end of my first year I went from being you know, in chemical engineering because that was all I could do because India has these limits right on non resident Indians can't get into every so you were sort of you had to live in India for seven years before you were considered. I couldn't even though I had a very high rank in the entrance exam into the engineering programs. I was like down at the bottom right,

Malini Sarma 5:35

because of the of the quota and you can only do so much if you are non resident and right and I was a girl back in those days, I

Padma Kuppa 5:41

didn't have quotas for girls the way they do today. Okay. And so I got into chemical but I did really well in my first year. And I was able to transfer my my branch as it were, as the UN principal asked me can you do mechanical I wanted to do mechanical, can you do mechanical you know, and I said, Well, there are guys who are shorter than me like can you do the forging workshop? And of course I said I could do you know, if people who are smaller size than me can do it? Of course I can do it. And so so

Malini Sarma 6:08

so when you when you started engineering college, how many You said you join the chemical engineering how many . Yeah.

Padma Kuppa 6:14

So they what they did was in REC Warangal in 1984. They separated us into four different batches. Section A, Section B, Section C, Section D, all the girls will put in the same section.

Malini Sarma 6:26

Oh, nine, how many? How many we talking? Which I know it's like,

wow, out of a class of what? 252 50? Mm, wow. Nine girls, nine girls.

And you were the only one in chemical or the put everything? Well, it

Padma Kuppa 6:42

didn't make it make a difference? Because all of us in first year we all took the same Oh, same class. Okay. Right. Next. And so I discovered that I liked mechanical engineering. And so when I had the opportunity to transfer because if you got it, and he's like, you can do electronics. I was like, No, no, I like mechanical because I can see right I can make things that I can build. I liked engines. I liked the idea of engines and so I became the first woman to pursue mechanical engineering in the history of Warangal. Wow.

Malini Sarma 7:11

Is it all the nine graduate from college it you know how

Padma Kuppa 7:14

we all graduated? Yeah. We

Malini Sarma 7:16

don't know how it is like you start you engineering colleges to that, like, Oh, my daughter's doing engineering so that you can get married and then she drops out in the middle? Yeah,

Padma Kuppa 7:23

we even have a whatsapp group.

Malini Sarma 7:25

Oh, that's right. That's awesome. Which keep in touch. Okay. Yeah.

Padma Kuppa 7:30

And so I had some challenges. I was a kind of struggling with my identity. They used to call me casual American teenager and make meow meow sounds when I walked by. Ah, so

Unknown Speaker 7:42

I mean,

Padma Kuppa 7:44

it was it was kind of interesting. I quickly learned how to wear saris, because I realized that a sari is a sign of Like it just it's a sign of maturity, I think and I wear saris and and so classmates were very kind. My own batch, we were 63 in mechanical engineering. And I would say my batch was very kind to me, because there would be sometimes things scribbled on the board or on my drawing board. And, you know, they would erase it before I got in sometimes, because they saw how much it hurt me when people wrote nasty stuff on the board. And I had a few close friends. But I also had my bad experiences there and did some crazy things. And we're all young only once. Right? So but I knew that I needed to come back to the United States. So I

Malini Sarma 8:31

found out in India, no engineering is five years. Is it the same over here? Because here it's four years, right?

Padma Kuppa 8:39

It was four years at that time at. Okay.

Malini Sarma 8:43

Okay, so. So when you were doing your see when you move to mechanical how many years? Were you the only girl? Oh, yeah. Wow. So out of 63 with the only girl Mm hmm. In mechanical,

Padma Kuppa 8:57

and the professor. Some of them would make me come sit up in the front, but I didn't want to because sometimes the guys would throw chalk at me in the first year. And the first year mechanical. So first year was the nine girls second year was the first time I was the only girl in the whole classroom. Okay, so I tried to sit in the back with some of the professors were boring. You didn't want to see them. See you doodling on your

Malini Sarma 9:17

right, right. Right, right.

I mean, you learn very quickly to survive, actually, you know, I don't think people realize we're here. There's, of course now there are lots of rules about hazing and stuff like that. But the adjustment is, is is quite

Padma Kuppa 9:30

traumatic. Sometimes it was it was i was i was i would say that emotionally. I was. Very, I struggled. And so I knew, though, that I had to come back to United States that I had to figure out who I was and where I fit in. And that the way I would do that would be to come back to the United States, because it didn't feel wholly Indian. But I did learn something in India and that is something that I think RAC was very special students come 50% of this Students in any RAC at that time came from within the state that it was in. So it came at the time it was under Andhra Pradesh or came you know 50% of students were from within Andhra and then 50% of the students were from outside from all states and countries. We had a Malaysian we had a Palestinian we had one of my classmates Amrita was from Amrita Das Bengali was from Andaman Nicobar Islands. I didn't even know physically I knew that they were islands but right where and so learning about them and then classmates from Nepal and and you know, all different parts of India I had a people tease me and rag me and so I learned quickly how to rag people myself when freshmen girls came in the door. First question I would ask them is named the four South Indian states and therefore capitals. Mm hmm. Because I realized that a lot of people in India you know, you are all Madrasis if you're Yes, anything south of Mumbai, anything south of Bombay, is considered that and if they couldn't answer the four states in the four capitals, I would make them do you know, the, we call them in Telugu gungi mm. You do the squats? Kinda like Yeah, yeah. So that was my punishment. No them. I talked to everybody. I even talked to the Naxalite student leaders. There was a student leader who is an excellent I talked to her as well. And so I got questioned by the police when one of the police people was murdered. Why Why did you talk to her? But it's a really interesting experiences.

Malini Sarma 11:25

To rec rec is a regional college engineering college, right? Is that

Padma Kuppa 11:30

in college about another 15 of them at the time, okay. And I learned my roommate was Catholic, my first taste of wine with wine that her mother made. Mm, that she brought back home after the break one holiday break. I just, you know, we had, you know, lots of interesting experiences, they would lock us into our dorm, the girls dorm during Holi because all the guys would have a little bit more fun, I guess. And you get an abraded. So the best way to keep the girls safe, lock them in the dorm. But that was fascinating. I'm not. But I also learned how to get along with people of different backgrounds. Yeah. And that you can find common ground and you can enjoy each other's company you may not all you know there's always the the fun camaraderie and rivalry between the different branches to different batches. Were you from the 88 batch or the 86 batch or whatever and you would nurture the freshmen I had a couple of freshmen I was close to one of them is now like a big leader in TCS. And just I had some good experiences of pluralism in the Indian setting, right? My dad's one of my very close friends, when I was doing my plus two at Stanley girls with Stanley Grossman in college was my dad's colleagues daughter, and she would invite me over during Eid they would invite her over for my Bommai golu. And you just kind of it's like backyards with no fences in between, right? Where it didn't matter what religion or what linguistic background or you know what kind of socio economic strata you got together. My roommate in college. One of them was from a small village near Tenali, which is where my father grew up. And her parents, her parents had given her up to adoption to her uncle, and he was an MLA. And her parents had a lot of money. So she, you know, she lived well, for a young village. But, but they were shocked that I would go visit them in the village, I was a city girl, whatever, and it was just, you know, being able to make those kinds and then have my roommates come home, right? Eat my mom's, you know, traditional South Indian mine. So it was really good experiences of the pluralism inherent in India. Right? Right.

Malini Sarma 13:54

Because it almost is like, like you said, it's like every state is almost like a different country because a different language, different clothes, different food, you know? And yet,

Padma Kuppa 14:03

yeah, shantha is really special. Because you know, you'd always go to the temple before the exam, or whatever. We would go to church together first because she was. And I would know the Latin because I'd studied Latin in school in the United States. And so I used to enjoy going to hear the Latin and his smell of the frankincense and myrrh in the Catholic church there. And then we would go to the temple and sometimes I wouldn't know because I hadn't grown up with a temple. Right? I mean, the temples weren't built until the late 70s. Right. And so she would like have some idea of what what I should do when I went into the temple. And and then I also got to see some of the famous temples there's the Maha Kali temple, there's the Rama temple and the thousand pillar temple and they're very famous. And so visiting those visiting temples with my grandmother was my grandmother's especially my mom's mom was very pious and very interested in visiting so I became her sort of you Know the young person in charge of going with her so that you wouldn't be by herself, right? Yeah, yeah. And so it was and learning how to cook from my grandma, my mother's mother during the holidays, getting acquainted with family, the extended family. My mom comes from a large family of siblings and nieces and nephews and all of that. And then I came back I came back home because to me, America is home.

Malini Sarma 15:22

So you do you finish engineering and then come? Yeah,

Padma Kuppa 15:25

I came back with a foreign student visa to study in New York. Okay, first, I went to New York Institute of Technology to the computer science and from there I moved to Stony Brook where my mom had gotten her PhD and my dad had done his master's in philosophy and had done postdoctoral work under Pulitzer Prize winners and stuff like that, where my dad had introduced me actually to Alan Ginsburg, the beatnik poet. And, and so I went back to Stony Brook and I was in grad school there. And then I got a job that sponsored me for my green card first, my h1 and then my green card.

Malini Sarma 16:00

So you pretty much went through the immigrant process, just like all of us do, you know, come as students and and go through mass. You come as masked female?

Padma Kuppa 16:08

Yeah. Yeah. And it's interesting because most people, their husband goes through it and they write. It's been I actually, my husband was in school when I was working. And then he got his h1. And then I got my green card. He got his green card with me. Okay,

Malini Sarma 16:23

so you guys met, you met at work?

Padma Kuppa 16:25

We met? Actually, no, we met through family friends. So one of my parents had a common connection with his parents and this man, play matchmaker, basically, he's like, Oh, you have a daughter, they have a son You guys should meet. So my parents met my in laws made that formal traditional, would like our daughter to meet your son kind of thing. And but we met here in the United States at his aunt's house, okay, in Connecticut, and and then we got engaged a few months later, we got married the following year.

Malini Sarma 16:53

So you didn't have any issues with that. I mean, considering that you spent so much of your time in the US, you didn't have any issues with the whole arranged marriage thing? Because I know a lot of the kids now it's like, what? No, I'm gonna find my own kind of thing, though. So you know.

Padma Kuppa 17:07

So I have a friend here in Troy, her name is Emma and Reed. They were set up by their moms who were teachers. Okay. And so I think a lot of the time we see this arranged marriage process, especially from a second gen or someone who grows up here, they don't necessarily see it as our parents have our best interests at heart, right. And they're trying to match us with someone who has similar interests, similar background, and for me, one of the biggest things was food. Mm hmm. And I knew that I needed to marry someone who ate my comfort foods.

Unknown Speaker 17:41


Padma Kuppa 17:43

I'm vegetarian. Yeah. And so while I didn't think too much of it, I would meet them just because my parents suggested it. And I didn't think it was going to click. I did it more out of filial obligation. Right, right. But two of my girlfriends one was from Montreal, one was from Long Island and was going through a divorce, should move back home to do her master's, and live with her mom with her daughter. And they both yelled at me. They're like, your parents are doing this because they have your best interest. I was like, Yeah, you're right. And so when I called my husband, he had no idea who I was to explain, like, calling because we have this common family friend that my parents went to your parents house with, and they want us to meet

Unknown Speaker 18:26


Padma Kuppa 18:27

And so then he called me back when he got his letter, I always say that my parents were more worried because they wanted to get me off their hands. Mm hmm. Because, you know, that is sort of the Indian way. Right? Like, right, not quite, you know, happy until you're very settled. Yes, of course, can attest to that. So. So I, you know, these two girlfriends, both kind of like, told me to call him and then I called him, he was nice. I just had to explain everything. He called me back. And then that was nice. And he actually, like, listened. And he was not judgmental. And he understood how hard it must have been for me to move back to India, at the 15th after living here for 11 years. And then his aunt called me, okay, is on tonight. I found common connections from when I was growing up. She lived in Connecticut. And then she and I hit it off. And so she's like, why don't you come up here. He's here in May. And you guys can meet here. And I had family friends who lived in Connecticut. So I went to stay with them. And then I drove over to his aunt's house and we met, you know,

Malini Sarma 19:31


Padma Kuppa 19:32

So you're

Unknown Speaker 19:35

never gonna say that again.

Padma Kuppa 19:36

We've been married more than 28 years. Congratulations. Thank you.

Malini Sarma 19:40

So um, so you came to do so you came to do your master's in mechanical and he was also he was also doing his master's.

Padma Kuppa 19:49

So when I was working, I was on my h1 in the process of getting sponsored and he had come to do his masters after working in India for a few years. That's how the ages worked out. He had worked in India. For four years before coming here,

Malini Sarma 20:01

okay, so but he was like born brought up an Indian. Yeah. Okay.

Padma Kuppa 20:06

All right. Everybody born and bred, born actually.

Malini Sarma 20:10

Okay. Okay. So so you guys met over here and got married, but when you were working you were working still working in New York, right?

Padma Kuppa 20:18

Yeah. And he, he started out working actually in New Jersey, then he moved to New York and then his job we had at that time, we had two kids, and his job had offered him the opportunity to move to Michigan. Now, okay. He was making airbags, passenger safety restraint systems. And I was working on a university campus. I was doing all the systems integration work. Okay, so my master's hit work had been in design. And I came to Michigan, and I wasn't really ready to move because a lot of family and friends across the Northeast, right, well, one of the things that struck me was that I could get a great job. And I love those engines. And I looked up at the Chrysler Building, I was like, I want to work there. Because, you know, the realtor took us around. And so we looked at housing, and we realized that we could actually afford a house on one salary, we didn't have to spend

Malini Sarma 21:05

my own, you know, northeast is very expensive.

Padma Kuppa 21:10

Yeah, both of us, we get jobs. And so we came here. And then, you know, I started volunteering for started volunteering in the Bharthiya temple. And I started volunteering in the, my daughter's school, in her elementary school, when she first started kindergarten, my neighbor, and I both went into the PTA gung ho to help and you know, and then I was working at the time, and then I had some health issues. And I realized that just childcare wasn't working, I didn't have like Elizabeth Warren, I didn't have an aunt bee that came in and moved in with me. To help me so that my career could flourish. My mom was, was taking care of her career and my brother who is in high school at the time, right. And so she didn't have the time to come help me. And I had health issues. And you know, it just it wasn't working. So I quit my job for a few years and tried to do some things on my own work for small business. And eventually, as the kids got older, I got back into the corporate life and got a job at Chrysler, and worked at Chrysler as a contractor, then I got, I got laid off during the recession. In 2008. I kept volunteering and one of the things that I volunteered in in 2002, after the schools and the temple, I volunteered in the city with an organization known as the ethnic issues advisory board, because after 911, I recognized that there was a difference in the way that people saw me when I moved to Michigan, it wasn't as welcoming as as New York was to immigrants. We kind of siloed ourselves, you know, you could walk into different neighborhoods in Troy and you could say, Ah, this is a DC subdivision. Like there'll be a lot of these living in this. I didn't live in one of those. I lived in that first starter home that we had bought and moved, and weren't that many Indians in the subdivision. There were many people in the PTA that were that look like me. And they would ask me, why don't more your people come. And so I would try to pull other Indian Americans and other immigrant groups, the work that I was doing, and I would volunteer with this ethnic issues advisory board to engage, you know, East Asians and South Asians and Romanians and Cal DNS and did a lot of inclusion work as a result of that the Troy school district actually created an award because I did a lot of try to educate the teachers about immigrant backgrounds. And I started an interfaith organization which Harvard teaches about that interfaith organization last night, we just had a Thanksgiving event on zoom virtually, with, you know, the mayor who's, you know, standard republican fair, and, and, you know, just the fact that it doesn't matter whether you're Republican, Democrat, right, Hindu, Christian Muslim, this is a place that we can all feel safe, right? And that our city is a welcoming city. Hmm.

Malini Sarma 24:05

Because I remember when I first came, you know, as a student, I remember Thanksgiving is such a, that's when you really miss home because everybody goes back home to their families and you're like, your foreign student, you don't know anybody. You can't even get like the you know, at that time, you didn't even get the new groceries unless you knew where to go and how to get it and you don't have the you know, any of this stuff. And they would have Thanksgiving dinner I remember he's usually a church or you know, organization that would kind of you'd say grace and you know, they would talk about what Thanksgiving is about and that was a very different but we appreciated the fact that you know that at least he included you it wasn't like all the fates or anything but it was like okay, if you don't if you don't have a place to go, you know, you can come in I remember feeling how you felt a little welcomed because they were like, okay, at least you're not abandoned. He was like, we don't know who you are, and you don't need to come and like if you're by yourself, make sure you come down and you know, like, okay, you could get food Free food that time when you students.

Padma Kuppa 25:03

It was awesome glee. Exactly. Yeah. So I did these things. I did a lot of volunteering in the community. So I had like the nine to five shift. And then I had the five to nine shift, right? And so kids would ask mom, can you stay home for a couple of nights here for dinner, I wouldn't bring down my food and leaving and so, but I really wanted to make a society where they would thrive where they were not the outsiders or the other. Right? Other with a capital O. And so I did a lot of work to make sure that we were representatives, Hindus, that this is not a heathen religion, where you raise people, but by religion that was respected. You know, it has values just like every other faith that we serve other people that we care for those in need, that we protect the vulnerable. And so people would say, well, you should run for politics. Right. And then I, in 2014, there was a vacancy on city council, I applied for that vacancy, there was an application process interviewed by city council members. So I didn't get selected. And it was very obvious that it was because I didn't

Malini Sarma 26:15

look like them.

Padma Kuppa 26:17

It was very split. There were three and three, three for me, three against me. And then they ended up picking up another white male. And so the compromise candidate anyway, so then the vacancy was there on planning commission. And so then I became a planning Commissioner, I was appointed to planning commission by the mayor. And I loved planning. And it was fun, I took training, I took two days out three days off of work, went and got training to become a certified citizen planner, I took the classes. And it was just it was it was really good. And during that time, again, the idea had come up that actually Rashida to leave congressmen to leave in 2013. He said, You should run for office, you should run for state rep, because you care so much about education would be a great advocate for your community for

Unknown Speaker 27:06

public education.

Malini Sarma 27:08

Well, she also was she also not at the time both of you ran at same time.

Padma Kuppa 27:12

No Rashida was a congresswoman Tahlib leave at the time was at the end of her for her third term as a state representative. Okay,

Unknown Speaker 27:20

so she already had some experience. Okay.

Padma Kuppa 27:22

Yeah. And so she was encouraging me and to run, because at the time, Stephanie chain, who is the daughter of immigrants, of Taiwan, she and I, Stephanie, and I were friends at the time in 2006, we worked on some things together, again, to bring the immigrant communities into the mainstream process, you learn about who's on the ballot, not just president, but like, what are your ballot initiatives? Why are you you know, I used to go to Lansing to advocate on education funding, because every year they would cut over the last 25 years have just cut, cut cut edge of public education funding, and you know, education cuts don't heal,

Malini Sarma 27:59


Padma Kuppa 28:00

You want your economy strong, you need an educated workforce, you want people to be able to pursue, you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you need to have an education. And so, education is something that nobody can take away from you once you have it. Right. Right. And, and so for, for as a, as a person who had seen how expensive and inaccessible to the average person education is in India. And knowing how education had brought me here, I wanted to advocate for K to 12 education, because that's the building block. And then from there, you can build other things. And you can go into a career directly into you know, or you can go directly into, like, into the military or into the, whatever service field, but you can also get a college degree and become a lawyer or a doctor, right? And whatever it is, but K to 12 was so important to me. And so I used to go to Lansing take time off of work, because when you're a contractor, you don't go to work, you don't do the day paid. Answer. Hey. So I took I took that into planning commission and all those things and understandings and being on planning commission being involved in these things. And when Stephanie ran, I didn't run and Stephanie tried to get me to run again. That was in 2016. I was like, No, no, my son was in high school, I was trying to make sure that both kids were sort of established. daughter had graduated high school and was in college. It's just a little nervous financially, could I afford it? Because I knew that it would require that I quit my job. So in in 2017, when I saw Betsy DeVoss becoming the Secretary of Education, I was like, Okay, let me see what I can do, do I do I go deeper into faith because I could see that people were so divided, right? And so went to seminary actually twice. And then that year, I decided that I would run for office and so set it up so that the family was comfortable with how I Did it and financially that we were prepared. I knew that I need to quit my job to run took classes on how to run from different organizations and and got training and got support from organizations like Emily's list. stands for early money is like East helps the dough rise because you need money to run a political campaign. Okay. I had a one hour conversation with Sam Singh the first Indian immigrant in the son of an, first Indian American in the state legislature. Okay. His parents immigrated and they lived in he grew up in Livonia Okemos after he graduated college and, you know, worked on different things. And then he ran for state rep and was the Democratic leader in 2017 2018. Okay, and then my friend Christine Gregg, who I met at an interfaith event from Farmington Hills. She's financially, you know, wrote me a couple of checks, and from her pack political action committee. It's like every job, even in the political space has acronyms, right. And so I started asking people for money. I started with my brother, and my cousins. And everybody understood that this is what I had always been serving the public. And so this is now to pursue a career in public service. Hmm.

Malini Sarma 31:18

Was it was it hard to make that transition? I mean, you know, what, after doing all that, 20 years ago, you gotta ask people for money, because without money, you can't really, you can't really succeed.

Padma Kuppa 31:27

Yeah. And I think that was also explaining to people why I need the money. Why do you need money to run for office? Right? knock on doors, and you ask people for their vote. But you also need to have literature. You also need to hire someone to know which doors to go to just because there's, you know, 100,000 houses doesn't mean you go to every single one of them. There may be people who don't vote, right? There may be people who bring a gun to the door when you come, right, right? Go don't go to those houses, because it's a risk to your life. I mean, the data may still be wrong, and you may still end up at a door where somebody is very hostile. But the idea was to use data analytics to use digital media to use all of that stuff. So So yeah, so I raised the money. And I explained to people what the money was for. And, you know, I was very fortunate. I think people knew who I was. So I had a lot of people that came out not only to give me money, but also to give me a lot of their time and energy. Because it wasn't just me going door to door. It was volunteers going door to door, right. I was a girl scout leader when my daughter was in kindergarten, my Daisy troop and one of the friends I had, she and I were co leaders and not only did she go door to door on my behalf. Her daughter went door to door can you imagine a 20 something 24 year old 22 year old girl going woman going to the door and saying, I'm here at your door because I know Miss Padma, and she was my girl scout leader. Like how convincing Is that right? And so Mary hazelbrook, who was a principal, I know. Yeah. made phone calls for me. Just the number of people Robin Beltrameanie who is a mayor Pro Tem of Troy gave me an endorsement. Ellen, Hodereck was a city council woman. City Council is nonpartisan. And so people don't always say what party they belong to, and they don't commit and, and to have these non partisan women in this, that supported me, and even my predecessor, you know, was advising me in the background. He's like, Don't worry, I'll vote for you. I can't endorse you because I'm a Republican. But here are the things that you should be doing. Now. That's, that's really awesome. That just talks about the support, you know, and the community. That's really cool. And so I flipped the seat, I took it to a democratic seat line to the side of the aisle, and I've had a rough time in the legislature, because the first thing they told me is, well, you took a seat away from a Republican, they're never going to give you a bill. But I've been trying, especially during COVID to provide the best services, I provide a window into what government is like, what, what does government do? And how can I help you?

Malini Sarma 34:20

I didn't see your email, because when I sent you the email, make up the response. And that was really, that was really helpful. I had no idea that you could do so much, you know, like you have the even if it is just to talk to somebody to say, Hey, you know, this is what I need. And what do I do? I had no idea. So thank you. So thank you for what you're doing.

Padma Kuppa 34:41

And so we try both on the the legislative side, if we get phone calls or emails to respond in a timely way, sometimes it's harder because some weeks we get more than others. Sometimes there's a personal issue in my own mind, that maybe I don't respond right away. Maybe the research that we need to do takes extra time. Right, because I'm not an expert, all I am is I'm a representative, right? But it is like playing whack a mole. Now that I'm in office, Mm hmm. There are so many things that have been eating away, not just public education. Mm hmm. I have a lot of colleagues who are teachers or educators or principals, they really know firsthand, but I'm an engineer. So I know some of the challenges and opportunities that we have. And so I've been doing some research and connecting with people on how do we build better, how do we make local sourcing important because that not only helps build our economy, but it also helps local sourcing will help us with our carbon footprint in manufacturing. It will grow the economy by educating people for the kinds of jobs that we have to have green energy. There are things that I can think of that, you know, I have insight into as an engineer, as a person who worked in the auto industry. So I think I'm one of the few that not only is an engineer and worked in the auto industry, but is in the legislature. And so reaching out to, you know, as a parent of a Spartan, you know, we have the best supply chain management, yes. in the country. And so I reached out to them recently, I said, hey, what can we do? And they're like, funny that you should ask, Who else is asked Congresswoman Alyssa Slotkin. And so they said, Why don't you get together with her because we gave her some feedback. So then, this weekend, I wrote an email to my former campaign manager, who now works for Congresswoman Slotkin, and said, Hey, can you help me get a meeting with the Congresswoman because she and I seem to be asking the same questions. Mm hmm. And so let's let's put our heads together and see what we can do. And she comes from a policy background, obviously, foreign policy and work for the State Department, CIA, and but you know, always having those connections and relationships. Yes. Yeah. So it's, it's been, it's been fun. It's also been challenging as a minority, Democrat being an amateur. And it's funny when I say minority people say, Oh, do you mean because you're Indian? And I'm like, no, it's because I'm a Democrat. We're only 52 of us in the legislature out of 110 58 are republicans and so all we have a governor who is on my team, as it were. We're all on Team Michigan, but everything I'm how we get there, and how we help the people can be a little different. So I don't think we should privatize public education. So I think that philosophically, I have a difference with my Republican friends. No. Okay. But I think that we could find common ground. I mean, we may not agree on hot button issues. But I think that we all want to reduce the number of people that die because of needless gun violence, right? How do we get there, we all want to reduce. You know, abortion is an invasive procedure. But we all want to provide health care to women so that we don't have the worst maternal mortality rate of any developed nation. So what are we doing to help women to help family? In India, I think the phrase was family planning, right? What can we do to provide better access to family planning

Malini Sarma 38:15

for? So as being part of a, you know, being state representative, what has been the most surprising thing that you did not expect good or bad?

Padma Kuppa 38:26

I didn't realize the impact of money and term limits. Oh, okay. I thought that, yeah, you get money from donors. I didn't realize they can hold you hostage. Um,

Malini Sarma 38:41

yes, of course.

Padma Kuppa 38:45

I'm fortunate that I had over 3500, nearly 3600 donors in this campaign just ended, which means that I have a lot of people who understand the values that I espouse. Okay? And that they support the values, that every child is deserving of an opportunity and an education, that everybody should not have to pay an arm and a leg for a medical bill and go bankrupt, right, that we should have affordable quality health care that we should have prescription drugs that are not challenging us between paying for our month supply of insulin or our groceries or our rent. To me, I have donors who understand that. I don't necessarily think that in my Republican side of the aisle, that's the way they think. In fact, I know for a fact that Patty Poppy, the former head of consumer, she just resigned last week to go to pg&e Pacific Gas and Electric. She actually came to the I sit on the Energy Committee. I served on the Energy Committee this term, and she came to them and she said, I do not believe in climate crisis. But today I do and you know, basically addressed Republicans, because many of them don't believe that climate change can be impacted by our policy and our humans. And so making science based decisions wearing masks because it's, you know, it's become a partisan thing. It's become a political thing. And then truly wearing a mask is scientific.

Malini Sarma 40:22

Yeah. It's like common sense. It should be common sense. way.

Padma Kuppa 40:26

Yeah. And so knowing that my donors are, like on this on this issue, they are not in doubt. Mm hmm. That they they understand science and protect people, because government's responsibility is public safety and welfare. Right. Right. And so what are we doing to ensure public safety and welfare as as people in government as people elected to office you represent? If you have questions about the, the elections or why I think mass, I refer them to the experts, I am not a medical professional. I'm not an epidemiologist, but there are many, many across the country, independents, Republicans, Democrats who agree that wearing a mask is the right thing to do. Washing your hands with soap is the right thing to do. Right, this social distancing, so that you don't spread your drugs. You know, no nonsense. No. Yeah, sick

Malini Sarma 41:19

mom kind of rules. You know, it's like, wash your hands. You know, make sure you you know, this is basic stuff. But I guess it's sad that it's coming to a poor dental thing.

Padma Kuppa 41:31

donors, donors not understanding that, right, it's really difficult for me. And then term limits, I knew that there were term limits, I knew that this journey into the political arena was limited by at least this particular position. I can only serve three terms in the statehouse. Okay. And so I thought, Okay, I'm gonna go in, we're going to talk about public education, there's a lot of business leaders are also on my side, business leaders tend to be leaning Republican. And there was a study that was done called fund my schools that launched a group of business leaders to start something across the spectrum. They had stakeholders, the teachers, unions, the educators, administrators, business leaders, called launch Michigan, launch, if anybody wants listening, and so they talk about fixing public education, it is it is not doing well in the state of Michigan, not every child is getting equal access to all right. And so I thought, This is what I'm going to do. The business leaders are behind it, I have corporate experience, I can bring in corporate leaders, and we can make changes that are for the better. Well, we haven't done that we've been in a divided government with the governor and the legislature and the legislature, not only aiding these people that come in, but having conversations with them, the ones who Platt plotted to, to not only shoot up the chamber, but also shoot police and kidnap the governor. Hmm. And so I don't know, I think term limits doesn't allow us to build relationships. It doesn't allow us to learn more about the job itself. Okay. As a project manager on different projects, I understand you've got a deadline, you've got a number of months to finish it, I get it. So I understand working against deadlines. So that's kind of what I'm doing and working against deadline.

Malini Sarma 43:27

So what is your so we knowing that you have a termite in, you know, with you, and you working really, really hard to represent the people and give them what they what they need. And there are a lot of I know, there are a lot of young people looking at you and following you and they want to, you know, be like you and say, you know, how could we be like, be like, you see what I mean? I know a lot of women are, you know, women of color, because you represent a lot of us, we're so proud of what you do. And you're like, wow, we have we have a face there, you know, we have a body there that looks like us and things like us and is looking out for us. So in particular lighting construction we would you planning to do in the future?

Padma Kuppa 44:08

Are you going No, no. I mean, I have a post potentially one more term, we do have districts that are being redrawn this year. So hopefully, I'll have the same district and if not, I have to figure out how to appeal to the voters of whatever district this toy that I live in. But I would say that, you know, the my mom said, wait until the next election decide what you do next.

Malini Sarma 44:31

You never know something else. We'll never know. You know, yeah, you have all the good work that you're doing will something will pop up, I'm sure. In fact,

Padma Kuppa 44:39

my dad said last night. You know, being in public service, being in politics is not the only way to serve the public. Exactly. Exactly. We'll figure it out. Yeah, but I do have two more years that the voters are trying Clawson sent me back to Lansing to represent them. Mm hmm. honored and I will work my darndest to serve them well. And then we'll see what happens in 2022. Yep,

Malini Sarma 45:03

we'll see what happens. So now um, I know there are a lot of young women and while young people because you know, your sons and your James Madison, in my son also graduated from school policy, and do watching you and following you and want to be like you. And so what, what, what is the top three pieces of advice that you would want to give somebody who wants to go into public service? Or should I say politics?

Padma Kuppa 45:34

Yeah, so I would say first thing that my son actually doesn't have a lot of interest in what I'm doing. But that's true of most young men, they don't care about what their moms are doing. I know. But I think that the number one thing I would say is, no matter what age you are, help your community thrive, get involved. You know, whatever it is that you like, you want you care about the environment, do what credit is doing, you don't have to be the next predator in Virgo, you can be, you know, the next Malini Sarma, the next street on you, you just have to find your passion. But not just as as a career, but also as a service. So even if you don't get paid for doing something to it, you know, whether it's helping out at a soup kitchen, and then you'll find your way. There's always a need to fill that need. And if if that leads you to run for office, great. But I you know, I was talking to a woman who works for the state of Michigan, named ferryside. Here it is. a ruse is the daughter of immigrants from the Middle East, she ran for Congress, she worked for the mayor of Detroit, She now works for the state of Michigan as a director of global Michigan is one of the things that helped Michigan survive with a population fall because so many Michigan youth take their education and leave. One of the great things that we've had is a lot of immigrants come into Michigan that helps sustain our economy. And one of the things that we talk about is, you know, it's not always about running for office, it might be learning about a particular field within policy. We need criminal justice reform, we policy that will support green new jobs, right, new green and economy jobs. We need policy that will support investment in infrastructure, and how do you develop mass transit in the state of Michigan. I also feel that people miss local politics volunteer for a city or a school board. You know, maybe your kids are young volunteer not only just in your child's classroom, or that particular area, like a good girl set up a volunteer for the school at large. I used to run the picnic and Carnival for Hill Elementary. I started with the two music directors at the International Academy where my kids went to school high school, or the music parent Association because I saw when my daughter was in marching band at Athens, I saw that they got to go on trips around the state and around the country, and that the students couldn't the International Academy students were limited. So when my son was a senior, we finally did our first trip and we went to New Orleans with the band and orchestra. And and so that those things, just do those things. And that's to me is the first way to get involved and help the community thrive. And then get involved run for council run for school board we now have in Troy we have an Indian American engineer like me, she is on school board. She just got elected this past November.

Unknown Speaker 48:52


Padma Kuppa 48:53

in Canton, they elected a township supervisor who was my colleague at Chrysler and my friend in interfaith activism, who's now the township supervisor. And along with her, she has a slate of candidates, which includes an immigrant from who's Bengali of Indian origin and the city like Canton, where there's so many immigrants to finally have people of color on their township trustees. Hmm. So I think just getting involved at the local level because local politics is not partisan. I think it's really, really fun. To be involved as a planning Commissioner, I enjoyed the work I did. When I stepped down. The person that got appointed was a friend of mine, named sada crema. He's from Bangladesh. He's an engineer, mechanical engineer, just like me, immigrated and was working in Chrysler. And you know, he, I recommended him to apply and lo and behold, he's now serving his third year on planning commission. That's awesome. And you know, just understanding that there are ways to and it takes, you know, being I'm planning commission takes maybe 15 hours, 10 hours of your month. Not that much. Right? In the whole scheme of things. And I think it's important that our voices and our perspectives are included. There are boards and commissions at the state level that people can apply for. If you write to if you go to Koopa dot house, dems, calm, you'll find I have a monthly newsletter. Okay, so I'll include information in that on things that you can do to get involved. You can follow me on social media, on Facebook and, and on, on Twitter and Instagram. And so, you know, try to provide information, learn how government works, whether it's your city, or your state. We're so attracted to what goes on at the national level. Right? We think the best place to start is local. All politics is local.

Malini Sarma 50:59

Yes, I absolutely agree. Thank you. Padma. This was really, really good to hear you and hear more about how you started in where you are today and the very best of luck for the future. I'm sure the citizens of Detroit Clawson will vote you back in because I know you're doing a fabulous job. And I will be talking to you soon.

Padma Kuppa 51:23

Thank you so much Malini and glad to be on your podcast. And have a great day. Thanks you too. Bye.

Transcribed by

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Malini Sarma

Malini Sarma

Your Host

Hello. I am Malini. I am a dancer, world traveler and storyteller. I am a hard core fan of chai and anything hot. I am always looking for new adventures and would rather be outside than inside.

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