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Patricia Funegra

Founder and CEO, La Cocina VA

“Many people told me not to do all this because I wasn’t ready but I believe that the key to success is to start before you are ready.”  

In 2014, I started La Cocina VA, a workforce and entrepreneurship development nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., area, to help immigrants and low-income individuals find jobs in the food service and hospitality industries that can transform their lives. It is designed to address the coexisting problems of unemployment, food insecurity, low English levels and lack of entrepreneurial opportunities these people face. Our students range from 18 to 60 years of age, and we estimate approximately 70 percent live below the poverty level — many well below that level.

The problems I am trying to solve

Although we started by focusing on the Latino community, we expanded services to include other immigrants and low-income individuals and veterans in 2018. Our clients are mostly unemployed women who suffer from chronic poverty and food insecurity. Our program teaches students the basics of commercial cooking and technical English, certifies them through a local community college, and places them in jobs in hotels and restaurants. In addition, our students prepare healthy meals from food that is donated to our kitchen services, then distribute them to low-income families and homeless individuals.

Our new, 5,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) will triple our capacity to serve people. And through our Culinary Small Business Development Incubator, we will provide individuals with all the resources they need to become entrepreneurs, such as with a catering business or food truck.

The moment that sparked my passion

My previous job at an international development bank was aligned with my desire to give back. But I was never able to experience firsthand how my everyday work was really transforming people’s lives. I had been volunteering at different nonprofit organizations when the idea came to me. I looked in the kitchens at food service operations and saw immigrants working hard with little to no opportunities to advance and earn more money to provide for their families. From then on, I became obsessed with finding a solution to this problem.

For the next year and a half, I worked days and nights learning everything I could about nonprofits, looking for a location, and searching for partners. In 2014, I quit my job, used all my savings, and went to work in the kitchen basement of a church where La Cocina VA was born.

What I wish other people knew

We have an 87 percent program completion rate, an 82 percent job placement rate and a 78 percent job retention rate after one year, and we have served more than 25,000 healthy meals. One 23-year-old mother, now working at a Hilton hotel, is making almost $18 per hour in her first culinary job. Two former students even became first-time home buyers. We’ve also seen the human impact of our program. When one Peruvian woman stepped out onto the stage at her graduation ceremony, she started to cry. Later she explained to me that for the first time ever, her husband had told her he was proud of her.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Many people told me not to do all this because I wasn’t ready — this was a scary new world that I was entering. But I believe that the key to success is to start before you are ready. If you wait until you are ready, days, months, and years go by and you are still postponing that moment. If you start now, you accelerate your learning process. You will make mistakes, but you will also learn from them.

Why my approach is unique

The Zero Barriers TEC provides a variety of interrelated services aimed at reducing barriers to jobs and entrepreneurship under one roof. Our culinary training program is the only bilingual culinary job training and job placement program in the region that trains immigrants in vocational English and offers full scholarships certified by Northern Virginia Community College. We chose this approach because, according to the Migration Policy Institute, language instruction contextualized for the workplace, along with skills training, is the most effective way to meet the needs of workers with limited English skills or low education levels.

Our Healthy Food Assistance Program uses food from area food banks, which reduces food waste and improves nutrition in the community. Our Culinary Small Business Incubator provides access to kitchen space and small business training while also providing distribution outlets through our own café and community partners.