Watch La Cocina VA's startup story. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways. 

It’s a big moment: Paty Funegra is getting ready to move her kitchen out of the basement.

Funegra is the founder of La Cocina VA, a social enterprise that helps unemployed Latino immigrants find jobs in the food industry by teaching them food and language skills. For the past five years, she has run the culinary-training organization from the lower floor of Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virgina. But now, she’s ready to scale — and recently raised $2 million to open the Zero Barriers Training & Entrepreneurship Center, which will include a state-of-the-art kitchen incubator, a community cafe, and, she hopes, the promise of a successful future for newly arrived immigrants.

Changing Immigrants' Lives Through Food

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Paty Funegral.

An immigrant herself, the Peruvian-born Funegra says she feels it’s her responsibility to help the vulnerable — especially now. In the wake of the El Paso shootings, and amid anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration, “we see a lot of fear in our communities,” she says.

“My position is to hands-on jump in and do something about it. Don’t fight back that rhetoric with words but with actions.”

[Related: Listen to our podcast series about women doing good on the ground]

Learning the Best Approach

It took Funegra a while to figure out how to best help immigrants.

She grew up in Lima during a turbulent time of violence, poverty and narcotics trafficking. In 2007, she moved to the U.S. after falling in love with an American (the relationship didn’t work out) and eventually took a job with the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. While the bank finances economic development projects in Latin America, Funegra felt disconnected, being so far away. “I was never able to experience how families in Nicaragua, or in Brazil, or back in Peru, were being the beneficiaries of these investments,” she says. “So I started looking around, here in the D.C. region, for opportunities to get involved with my Latino community.”

Funegra became a volunteer at DC Central Kitchen, a 30-year-old community kitchen that helps unemployed adults learn restaurant-industry skills while also donating the meals that they cook to the homeless or hungry. “So I went there to chop carrots and onions,” she recalls, noticing that the kitchen mostly served the African-American community. That was her “a-ha” moment. She asked Executive Director Michael Curtin if she could replicate the community kitchen idea, but this time serving Latinos. “Mike was very generous, accepting right away,” she says with a laugh, but “he didn’t realize that I was serious about it.”

Not only was she serious, Funegra launched La Cocina VA a short six months later, while still working full-time. “I didn’t have $5,000 back then” to hire a lawyer, she says, so she took online courses on how to start a nonprofit. Then she needed to raise more money and find partners. “I remember I was skipping lunches and breakfast at work, just to go and knock on different doors.”

The missing piece — and it was a big one — was an inexpensive kitchen for hands-on preparation, plus classrooms for English classes. Fortunately, Funegra knocked on the door of Mount Olivet, which took an interest in her idea and donated the use of its basement. “This has been an amazing partner,” Funegra says. She quit her day job, drained her savings to print her first promotional materials, and began her new career.

[Related: I Quit My Job to Build Schools in Guatemala]

Changing Lives Through Food

Since 2014, over 120 students have taken part in the fully-funded 16-week bilingual training program, in which they take classes on food prep, nutrition, sanitation and kitchen vocabulary. Graduates receive certification through Northern Virginia Community College. Some 85% have found jobs in the industry, and graduates’ average hourly wage is $14 per hour, nearly double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25, according to La Cocina’s 2018 annual report.

Funegra has signed up a number of corporate partners, including food giant Nestlé. “La Cocina VA is providing students the skills they need to succeed in a huge and important sector of the economy: food,” the company said in a Medium post. With some 1.46 million people in the U.S. working in the food and beverage industry, Nestle added that it’s “thrilled to connect with trained talent.” Other partners include Hilton and Whole Foods.

Funegra says the majority of students are women immigrants from Central and South America, and many have been victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking. With La Cocina VA graduates now holding down jobs and making a collective $2.6 million in salaries, she hopes their success inspires other immigrants “to look at the future with hope and with light.”

The new center, which is scheduled to open this coming March, would triple the program’s current capacity, allowing 120 trainees to graduate each year. It will be located on the first floor of an affordable housing complex. The cafe is expected to generate revenue for La Cocina VA, while the incubator would help aspiring food entrepreneurs test out ideas. “We have dreamers that are dreaming about starting businesses, especially women from the Latino community,” Funegra says. “I am immensely proud that now, in the very near future, we will be able to support them to … create jobs and to contribute to the economy.”

Funegra believes her own experience as an immigrant has fueled La Cocina VA’s growth.  “All those moments of challenges and obstacles, and barriers, and lack of clarity of the future, built the skills that I have now,” she says.

Check out more women entrepreneurs in our Good on the Ground  series.

Read Full Transcript

Patricia: Every kitchen in the country—it could be a Vietnamese or Peruvian or American cuisine restaurant—if you look at the back of the house, you are going to find Latinos. And Latinos are hard workers. However, Latinos and immigrants in general face many barriers.

SOT: (crowd chanting) “USA! USA!”

Patricia: 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.

TEXT: Paty Funegra – Founder + CEO – La Cocina VA – Arlington, Virginia

Patricia: La Cocina VA serves communities of color, immigrants and individuals with a great need to obtain a job; with interest in the culinary world, to starting careers in the food service industry.

TEXT: Paty grew up in Peru.

Patricia: I grew up in Peru in the '80s, 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.

TEXT: In 2003 Paty completed a degree in business from the Peruvian University of Applied Science.

TEXT: In 2010 a friend suggested Paty apply for a job at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C.

Patricia: That's when I immersed myself in international development. 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.

TEXT: Paty wanted to work more directly with the Latino community.

Patricia: I found DC Central Kitchen, which offers culinary training to unemployed members of the African-American community, mostly. So I went there to chop carrots and onions with all these other volunteers, and pretty quick understand that approach, that program, could greatly benefit the Latino community.

TEXT: In 2014 Paty decided to start La Cocina VA to train Latinos to work in the food industry.

Patricia: I had to find partners, and I had to put together the program and identify the first seed of money that was going to help me make this a reality. I remember I was skipping lunches and breakfasts at work just to go and knock on different doors.

TEXT: After searching for months, the United Methodist Church in Arlington offered Paty space to host her not-for-profit.

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

TEXT: Students learn food safety, culinary technical training and English kitchen vocabulary.

Patricia: 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, delivered by volunteers, drivers, that help our program.

Patricia: And this program creates this sense of community among our students, that come from those same neighborhoods and those same situations, putting themselves out there, bringing meals, healthy meal options for their neighbors in need.

TEXT: The program is officially certified by the Northern Virginia Community College.

TEXT: After 12 weeks of training, students are placed in a one-month paid internship.

Patricia SOT: You have to come back and be a role model for new students and help us and volunteer. Be ambassadors of the program. We are super proud of you.

Patricia: And we are working in civic engagement approaches to help the Latino community present solutions to issues.

TEXT: More than 120 students have graduated.

TEXT: Of those, 85% have gone on to work in the industry.

TEXT: They have generated more than $2.6 million in salaries.

TEXT: Paty is preparing to move into a new 5,000 square foot facility which will allow her to accelerate La Cocina’s impact.

Patricia: Let's show them with clear actions how we are contributing, with numbers of income generated, with taxes paid, with kids attending college, with how we are civically engaged in this country as new Americans.