Before opening her Tempe restaurant, 24Carrots Natural Café, Sasha Raj was a student-worker in the ASU Gammage box office experimenting with juices and drafting her business plan between job shifts and classes. Now, Raj is a Tempe 2021 State of the Neighborhoods and Awards winner and credits much of her success to the opportunities she received at ASU Gammage.
“My day-to-day academics at ASU were very much science-based and ASU Gammage was an incredibly creative outlet,” Raj said. “You’re also surrounded by people who are artists and performers and singers, and they have made a living out of being creative, and that’s something that … in my first-generation immigrant family, it wasn’t often seen. Creativity was usually in addition to whatever career you are going to have. You were a doctor and a dancer, or a musician and a physician, but ASU Gammage introduced me to this entire world of people who had taken what they were passionate about in the arts and built themselves a world. That really struck me at an age where I needed to know that that was possible.”
Raj, who worked in another juice bar before opening 24Carrots, realized that she “wanted to work at a restaurant or work in an environment that allowed me to be fully transparent with my community.”
“When I didn’t really find that I tried to create it,” Raj said.
Between her biochemistry courses at Arizona State University and her time spent working in the ASU Gammage box office, Raj forged ahead toward this dream and found support from her supervisors at work.
In the summer months, Raj set up a booth along the path that ASU Gammage patrons would take to get to the theater. Raj prepared samples of her juices for patrons to try as they walked by, and provided comment cards to get feedback about how to improve her business.
“I would just take every container I had in the house and I would puree it into whatever juice and smoothie and whatnot that I could find,” Raj said. “And then I would bring them in, and my co-workers were really sweet about sampling and I still stay in touch with a lot of them.”
More than a decade after 24Carrots opened its doors, Raj’s passion for the Earth and good-for-you ingredients has earned her the Sustainability Award for Business.
Raj said that using biodegradable and recyclable materials whenever possible is just one part of being sustainable and that it is also about her employees, her customers and the community at large.
Amidst the ongoing pandemic, Raj and her team at 24Carrots doubled down on supporting their nonprofit partners who were hit especially hard.
“We continue to work with community partners to provide additions to meals for five different school districts,” Raj said. “In the month of May, 24Carrots alongside five or six other restaurants through a chef cooperative that I’m a part of called the Blue Watermelon Project, we were able to chop up local carrots, package them up to feed 24,000 school lunches across four weeks. We’ve been supporting three shelters regularly with food, we’ve supported two hospitals, we’ve supported foster care networks and also tried to nurture and support up-and-coming entrepreneurs through mentorship and things like that.”
Raj said that while the term “essential workers” was used more in 2020 to describe people like her team at 24Carrots, “our work was always essential.”
“I hope we showed our community that every time they choose us during the good times, we will choose them when it’s rough,” Raj said. “We won’t abandon them ever. It also showed our team that even when the world is incredibly disjointed and it’s very, very difficult to understand what your day-to-day is going to look like, that if we work together, we can still be impactful, we can still work with purpose.”
When Raj received her award, she recognized a familiar face amongst her fellow awardees — her former boss at ASU Gammage, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack.
Jennings-Roggensack, vice president for cultural affairs and executive director of ASU Gammage, received the Arts and Culture Award for Community Impactor. She said the reunion was “very emotional,” and Raj’s gratitude for her experience at ASU Gammage is a testament to the university’s dedication to preparing students for careers outside of the classroom.
“We employ about 156 students a year,” Jennings-Roggensack said. “Most of our students who come to work for us stay with us through all four years of college, and if they go on to graduate school, they still continue to work for us. It was just very moving, but also very telling about how many different students’ lives we impact and help them on their journey to who they will become.”