Wherein I give Mr. Ebert 1,000,000 thumbs up. RIP.
This story was originally shared on Capital One.
Inside the walls of her kitchen at her childhood home in Guatemala, Evelyn Klohr, the founder of a Washington, D.C.-area bakery called Kakeshionista, was taught a lesson that remains central to her business operations today.
"Baking cakes gave me the confidence to believe in my own brand and now I put my heart into giving my customers something they'll enjoy eating," Klohr said.
While driven to launch her own baking business, pursuing a dream in the culinary arts was economically challenging for Klohr. In the United States, culinary schools can open doors to future careers, but the cost of entry can be upwards of $36,000 a year.
Through a friend, Klohr learned about La Cocina VA, a nonprofit dedicated to providing job training and entrepreneurship development services at a training facility in the Washington, D.C-area.
La Cocina VA's, which translates to "the kitchen" in Spanish, offers its Bilingual Culinary Training program to prepare low-and moderate-income individuals from diverse backgrounds to launch careers in the food industry.
That program gave Klohr the ability to fully immerse herself in the baking industry within a professional kitchen facility and receive training in an array of subjects including culinary skills, food safety, career development and English language classes.
Photo courtesy of Capital One
The organization also offers participants the opportunity to enroll in its Culinary Small Business Incubator, a 9-week training course that teaches participants to create and scale their own food-based startups.
During that program, LA Cocina VA provides participants with support for developing the internal operations of their businesses and provides a shared kitchen for community members to rent space at affordable rates.
Patricia Funegra, who founded La Cocina VA in 2014, said that helping people like Klohr is exactly why she wanted to create the incubator.
"I have firsthand experience of the difficulties of being an immigrant and person of color in America," said Funegra. "At the same time, I also know the enormous opportunities that exist here to improve people's lives."
With the help of funding from Capital One, the center has been able to support 160 participants since opening with roughly 85% of graduates being hired for jobs in the food industry upon completion.
La Cocina VA also received support from Capital One's Community Finance team as it provided financing for the construction of Gilliam Place, an affordable housing unit in which La Cocina VA moved its operations into in 2020.
After moving into Gilliam Place, Funegra launched the Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center, a hub for startup founders that includes a kitchen incubator and a community cafe to provide workforce development opportunities for residents.
That support comes as part of the Capital One Impact Initiative, a multi-million dollar commitment to support growth in underserved communities and advance socioeconomic mobility by closing gaps in equity and opportunity.
La Cocina VA students also worked alongside Capital One Cafe ambassadors to learn skills in management and personal finance.
Photo courtesy of Capital One
"The COVID-19 pandemic forced entrepreneurs, especially people of color and immigrants, to shift their entire business models just to survive," said Emilia Lopez, the Senior Vice President of US Card Customer Resiliency, who serves on La Cocina VA's Board of Directors. "As a La Cocina VA board member, I am proud of the commitment and support Capital One provides La Cocina VA and thankful for their effort this past year to help entrepreneurs quickly adapt their businesses to support alternative dining options."
La Cocina VA is also in constant communication with employers, partners, hotels and restaurants to make them aware of their pipeline of graduates.
"La Cocina VA taught me not just the physical work that goes into baking and cooking but also how to have a good understanding to mentally and financially launch my business," said Klohr. "They're helping me make those connections and I know they'll always have my back."
In the autumn of 1939, Chiune Sugihara was sent to Lithuania to open the first Japanese consulate there. His job was to keep tabs on and gather information about Japan's ally, Germany. Meanwhile, in neighboring Poland, Nazi tanks had already begun to roll in, causing Jewish refugees to flee into the small country.
When the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania in June of 1940, scores of Jews flooded the Japanese consulate, seeking transit visas to be able to escape to a safety through Japan. Overwhelmed by the requests, Sugihara reached out to the foreign ministry in Tokyo for guidance and was told that no one without proper paperwork should be issued a visa—a limitation that would have ruled out nearly all of the refugees seeking his help.
Sugihara faced a life-changing choice. He could obey the government and leave the Jews in Lithuania to their fate, or he could disobey orders and face disgrace and the loss of his job, if not more severe punishments from his superiors.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Sugihara was fond of saying, "I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't, I would be disobeying God." Sugihara decided it was worth it to risk his livelihood and good standing with the Japanese government to give the Jews at his doorstep a fighting chance, so he started issuing Japanese transit visas to any refugee who needed one, regardless of their eligibility.
What started as 10 or 20 refugees asking for help soon grew to the hundreds. For six weeks in the summer of 1940, Sugihara issued and signed as many visas as he could before he was reassigned, sometimes working 18-hour days. The final tally totaled more than 2139, but experts estimate that 6,000 to 10,000 Jewish lives may have been saved by Sugihara when accounting for children and spouses traveling with the visa-holders.
The problem of the refugees safely making it to Japan was also taken care of by Sugihara. He spoke fluent Russian and managed to negotiate with Moscow for Polish Jews to be granted safe passage through the Soviet Union.
The visas issued by Sugihara would eventually become known as "visas for life," and according to the Washington Post, an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people living today can trace their own lives back to those visas. One survivor has dubbed Sugihara the "Japanese Schindler." (German factory owner Oskar Shindler, of "Schindler's List" fame, saved the lives of an estimated 1,200 Jews.)
Sugihara's son, Nobuki, told The Guardian last year that several myths have crept into his father's story, including that he was signing visas and throwing them off the train as he left and that his wife would massage his hands after long days of signing visas. There's no evidence that those stories are true, but there's a lot about his father's story that was left untold for much of his life.
Nobuki said that he had no idea when he was younger that his father was a WWII hero at all. Sugihara had been unceremoniously dismissed from government work after the war, and through the 1950s and 60s, he'd worked as a trader in a small coastal town in Japan. He didn't talk about how many lives he had saved with his visas.
It wasn't until an Israeli diplomat contacted the family in 1969 that Sugihara's sacrifice and courage came to light, but even then, the significance of it wasn't clear to Nobuki. But in 1984, two years before he died, Sugihara was declared "righteous among the nations" by Yad Vashem, the Israeli state organization that commemorates the Holocaust—an title that honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocaust. Since then, books and films have been made to share Sugihara's story.
Chiune Sugihara - Righteous Among the Nations www.youtube.com
Though the Holocaust is filled with stories of heinousness and horror, there are also gems of humanity that shine out from that darkness and offer hope. Sugihara's story reminds us that human beings always have a choice to do what's right over what's easy or expected. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, when asked why he signed the visas decades after the fact, Sugihara gave two reasons: "They were human beings and they needed help," he said, adding, "I'm glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them."