Paty Funegra

“In every kitchen in the country,” says Paty Funegra, “you are going to find Latinos.” But too few programs help newly arrived immigrants learn food or language skills. Listen to how Paty, who was born in Lima, Peru, came to the United States and decided to start a program, La Cocina VA, to help her fellow immigrants land jobs in the restaurant industry. We spoke with Paty not long after the El Paso shootings targeted Hispanics. This inspiring podcast story works like a salve against the disheartening crush of stories about immigrants, and showcases their resilience and entrepreneurial spirit.

[Related Article: An Immigrant Founder Uses Food to Lift Up Her Latino Community]

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SUE: You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange, featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing.

COLLEEN: I'm Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I'm Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: I am so excited for this podcast.

SUE: Me too!

COLLEEN: This was actually our staff's favorite stories last year —

SUE: Are we supposed to have favorites?

COLLEEN: It's allowed! We’ll allow it for this one. Today we are talking to Paty Funegra.

PATY: I was born in Lima, Peru.

COLLEEN: She is the founder of a very cool and incredibly relevant social enterprise.

PATY: There are so many things that La Cocina is now doing that were not present even in my wildest dreams.

SUE: La Cocina is a community kitchen, based in Arlington, Virgina.

COLLEEN: It helps unemployed Latino immigrants find jobs in the foodservice industry by teaching them culinary and language skills.

PATY: Every kitchen in the country — could be a Vietnamese, or Peruvian, or American cuisine restaurant — if you look back at the back of the house, you are going to find Latinos.

SOT CHEF: (speaking in Spanish)

PATY: And Latinos are hard workers. However, Latinos and immigrants in general face many barriers.

COLLEEN: We happened to interview Paty last year, right after the shootings in El Paso, Texas, where immigrants, of course, were targeted. Here's CBS News.

CBS: A racist manifesto posted online before the shooting claimed quote "this attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas."

SUE: When you couple that with anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump Administration...

SOT: We will build a great wall along the southern border.

PATY: We see a lot of fear in our communities. There is fear on both sides. There are so many messages that discriminate immigrants, Latinos, as people that take advantage of the system, that overuse the system.

COLLEEN: Paty believes the best way to fight discrimination is with action.

PATY: Let's show them just how we are civically engaged in this country as new Americans.

COLLEEN: In this episode, we'll tell you how Paty started La Cocina...

SUE: the basement of a church...

COLLEEN: help her fellow immigrants succeed in the restaurant industry.

SUE: It's an inspiring story that will help counter some of the negative, disheartening stuff you're currently seeing on the news.

COLLEEN: And it will remind you of the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit that newcomers to the U.S. bring.

SUE: Stick around.

*Musical Interlude*

PATY: They come to receive classes here in our facilities for 12 weeks. It's a very intense program.

COLLEEN: We're inside La Cocina's commercial kitchen, where a female chef-slash-instructor is working with a small group of students — Latino women and men — from their early 20s to middle age.

SOT CHEF: So we’re going to cut around the cartilage here, and you’ll see the fat.

SUE: The instructor is showing one woman how to cut a whole raw chicken. Everyone’s focused and concentrating.

PATY: We have graduated more than 120 individuals that have come from, some of them, complete unemployment.

COLLEEN: Students take classes — for free — on food prep, nutrition, sanitation and English kitchen vocabulary.

SOT CHEF: This is going to be too big for your plate, okay? So try to cut it in half.

COLLEEN: Most of La Cocina's students are women from Central or South America.

SUE: Paty often hears...

PATY: ...stories of domestic abuse, human trafficking.

COLLEEN: But by the time they complete the program —

SUE: — which is bilingual —

COLLEEN: — they have certifications from Northern Virginia Community College and they're matched with local employers . . .

SUE: . . . like hotels and restaurants.

PATY: We have stories of success, and actually one story that comes to my mind right now is Carina.

COLLEEN: She's a woman from Mexico. She was living in an abusive relationship with three kids.

SUE: A case worker referred her to La Cocina.

PATY: After training and credentials, Carina obtained a job at the Hyatt Hotel in Capitol Hill, and her employer is now covering the cost of her studies at the community college to become a chef.

COLLEEN: One last piece of this is that all the food that students make as they're learning at La Cocina goes to a good cause.

SUE (SOT FROM TAPE): Tell me, you also have this component of donating prepared meals. Talk to me a little bit about that.

PATY: That's a powerful one. Students put together meals that, at the end of the day, are packed in individual containers and delivered to affordable housing units and homeless shelters.

COLLEEN: Students sometimes deliver healthy meals to low-income families living in the same neighborhoods, and in the same situations, as they're in.

PATY: And this program creates this sense of community among our students. So the circle closes beautifully.

SUE: We'll tell you more, after this brief break.

*Musical Interlude*

COMMERCIAL: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides
inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. If you like what you’re hearing, check out our podcast featuring Tatiana Garcia Granados, who started The Common Market to bring farm-fresh food to her Philadelphia neighborhood. “We see Common Market as an important role in rebuilding that regional food infrastructure so that small farmers can actually get their food to market at an affordable price.” It's Episode 21: Restoring Access to Local Farm Food.

COLLEEN: We're sharing the story of Paty Funegra, an immigrant from South America who is now helping her fellow immigrants find careers in the food industry.

SUE: Let's share a clip from a Ted Talk that Paty gave, a few years back.

PATY: If you guys happen to know a Hispanic, you may know that we are loud, and expressive, and friendly and passionate.

COLLEEN: She goes on to say that she realized combining all of that in a kitchen would be powerful.

PATY: Food will be used as the nucleus for transformation; as the agent and catalyst for change.

COLLEEN: Paty's own journey hasn't been the easiest.

SUE (SOT FROM TAPE): What year were you born?

PATY: I was born in '68. I grew up in Peru during the time of terrorism and huge corruption and narcotraffic. I remember going days without electricity, without water. Those were very challenging times for families, for my family.

COLLEEN: In 2007, she moved to the U.S. after falling in love with an American.

SUE: The relationship didn't work out...

COLLEEN: ...but she decided to stay and took a job in Washington with the Inter-American Development Bank...

SUE: ...which finances big projects in Latin America.

COLLEN : And she liked the work — but felt disconnected.

PATY: From the distance, from Washington D.C., I was never able to experience how families in Nicaragua, or in Brazil, or back in Peru, were being the beneficiaries of these investments.

COLLEEN: So she started looking around...

PATY: in the D.C. region, for opportunities to get involved with my Latino community.

COLLEEN: And that's when Paty became a volunteer at DC Central Kitchen — that's a 30-year-old community kitchen...

PATY: ...which offers culinary training to unemployed members of the African-American community mostly.

COLLEEN: And meals are donated to homeless shelters.

SUE: It's been featured in the Washington Post, NBC Nightly News — and here's a short clip from the PBS NewsHour.

MICHAEL CURTIN: We're training men and women who are coming out of incarceration; battling addiction; surviving abuse, homelessness and unemployment, for jobs in this hospitality business.

COLLEEN: That's CEO Michael Curtin, talking about DC Central Kitchen's mission.

PATY: So I went there to chop carrots and onions with all these other volunteers.

COLLEEN: And that is when Paty looked around and had an "aha" moment.

PATY: And I told Mike, "Mike, we should start an organization that trains Latinos. We should start a nonprofit that offers bilingual training, so this pipeline of workers can go through the program and increase their opportunities."

SUE: Mike was happy to share DC Central Kitchen's model.

PATY: He said, "Yes, let's do that," and I think that he didn't realize that I was serious about it. (laughter)

COLLEEN: Paty launched La Cocina a short six months later, while still working full-time.

PATY: I didn't have $5,000 back then.

SUE: She took online courses on how to start a nonprofit...

COLLEEN: ...and set to work raising money and finding partners.

PATY: I remember I was skipping lunches and breakfast at work just to go and knock on different doors.

COLLEEN: The missing piece —

SUE: — it was a big one —

COLLEEN: — was finding a space for all this.

PATY: The physical space, the kitchen, the place where we were going to be able to offer these classes.

SUE (SOT FROM TAPE): And you needed it for free.

PATY: And I needed economic support.

COLLEEN: Her persistence paid off.

PATY: And I invested a lot of time knocking on all those doors. And finally one day this angel, one lady at this United Methodist Church wanted to hear more about the idea.

COLLEEN: The lady thought Paty might be onto something, and the church — Mount Olivette in Arlington — donated the use of its big basement, with kitchen, classrooms and offices.

SUE: And with a full-time permanent space, Paty was off.

COLLEEN: She quit her day job, drained her savings and, in 2014, began her new career.

TIM KAINE: La Cocina VA, they're in Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington. But it's basically Latinos training them for restaurant careers...

COLLEEN: That's Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. This is a clip from Fox 5 in Washington.

TIM: ...gaining language skills, work skills and the ability to go out and find employment. And it's a great example of, a career in technical training is still so necessary.

COLLEEN: The senator is one of La Cocina's many fans.

SUE: La Cocina VA has a 85% job placement rate, and graduates’ average hourly rate is double Virginia’s minimum wage.

COLLEEN: Nestle, the giant food and beverage company, is now a major corporate sponsor of La Cocina.

SUE: Others include Whole Foods, Hyatt and Wegmans.

COLLEEN: And that brings us to some big news for La Cocina. We'll share a clip that Paty posted to social media.

PATY: Hello! This is a sneak peak of the Zero Barriers Training & Entrepreneurship Center which is under construction — we are super excited to come here every day and see the progress!

SUE: Paty is finally moving out of the church basement!

PATY: This right here is our classroom.

COLLEEN: That's right — she’s raised $2 million, from Nestle and others, to build a brand new building.

SUE: It's a huge 5,000 square feet. It will include a state-of-the-art kitchen incubator, a community cafe...

PATY: ...and right here we have the heart of our training center, which, with a little bit of imagination, you can see all the equipment and the prep tables.

COLLEEN: This new center, which is still very much concrete and steel right now, is scheduled to open this spring. And it will really scale La Cocina's operations.

SUE: It’s going to triple their capacity.

COLLEEN: Paty is most excited that — beyond training immigrants for kitchen jobs — it will also help them start their own businesses, whether that's a catering company or a food truck.

PATY: We will offer them also training — how to prepare a business plan, how to run a marketing campaign, access to micro-lending opportunities.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: At the beginning of this podcast, we talked about how Paty wants to fight discrimination with action.

SUE: It's exactly what she's doing.

PATY: We have dreamers that are dreaming about starting businesses, especially women from the Latino community, and I am immensely proud that now, in the very near future, we will be able to support them to start their own small businesses and create a more solid financial stability, but also be able to create jobs and to contribute to the economy.

COLLEEN: We thank Paty Funegra for sharing her story.

SUE: And we thank you for listening.

COLLEEN: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.