Via’s Cookies: A delicious way to close the education gap

Via’s Cookies' way to close education gap

The Ithaca bakery owner is aiming to help LGBTQ+ and students of color through college.
Published: March 9, 2023
Via Carpenter prepares cookies for her business, Via’s Cookies in Ithaca.
Via Carpenter prepares cookies for her business, Via’s Cookies, in Ithaca.

ITHACA — Via Carpenter grew up as one of the only people of color, aside from her own family, in a small town outside of Columbus, Ohio. After graduating high school, Carpenter moved east to attend Ithaca College — but not much changed. She was still a Black woman at a predominantly white institution.

As part of the Martin Luther King Scholar Program at Ithaca College, Carpenter pursued a project that she titled “The Miseducation of America.” She recognized how the education system in the U.S. is deeply flawed and wanted to dig deeper into understanding why. 

Carpenter was not thinking about her scholarship program when she started her business, but they ultimately melded together. 

Via’s Cookies was started in November 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Carpenter, 22, decided that she wanted to use her cookie business as a way to aid college students from marginalized backgrounds, just like herself. Five percent of the profits from Via’s Cookies go directly toward students of color and LGBTQ+ students struggling to pay for college. 

Amid recent legislation passed across the nation and the widened educational disparities as a result of the pandemic, Carpenter believes her business’ mission is more important than ever. 

The House Bill enacted in Florida that bans certain books in schools, the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and anti-LGBTQ laws across the country are just a few examples of how college is becoming increasingly unattainable to marginalized Americans. 

Carpenter spoke about how she plans to expand her donations, why she is dedicated to making cookies available to people with food restrictions and how she engages in community outreach. These are edited excerpts from a conversation with Carpenter and Julia Kahen, a journalism student at Syracuse University.

Did your upbringing have an influence on the mission of Via’s Cookies to support struggling LGBTQ+ and BiPOC students?

I lived outside of Columbus in a little country town in the cornfields. A lot of my story of adversity kind of stems from where I was in Ohio. Yeah, you don’t want to go to Ohio. People were just really racist. Racist, sexist, homophobic. Everything wrong is there. I mean, it’s everywhere. But where I grew up, I was one of the only people of color and the others were my family.

As a student of color in the system, I just faced a lot of struggle. I saw a lot of things. And I was like, you know what, I don’t want people like me who are facing similar struggles to feel so alone. That’s why I give back. Specifically to college students, because that’s when you’ve chosen your path and I want you to be able to stick it out once you get there.

Did being an MLK Scholar at Ithaca College affect you in any way?

I wasn’t even thinking about my scholarship program when I went after my business, but they seemed to tie together. So when we first got there, we went and volunteered at various different places. The Reuse Center, Southside Community Center, some other random places and then we had to come up with a project that we were going to pursue. Mine I titled “The Miseducation of America.” I carried that all throughout my college career and into my business because I donate specifically to students.

We’ve been in school our entire lives. Once you graduate, then you’re like, “Whoa, what do I do now?” My entire life had been in the education system and I’d seen how messed up it was. Just sitting in classrooms where the slave trade was mentioned, and everyone looks at you, and you’re like, “Whoa, are you looking at me? Because you’re all white and I’m black?” And then you start to see the dates of things that happen in history. And you’re like, wait a minute. My grandparents were alive when MLK was killed. And then thinking, “they act like this was so long ago, but it’s not.”

We are still facing these same exact issues today. Being in the education system is seeing how messed up it is and seeing all of the things that they leave out because of their own agenda. You know, there are a lot of things happening right now. In Florida, they removed all of these books, because they don’t want the kids reading them. I’m like, okay, you don’t want people being educated on the history of America? Because you’re, too… what? Because why? Exactly. You don’t want the truth of your ancestors to be revealed: that they were terrible.

Via Carpenter rolls cookie dough for her business Via's Cookies

Via Carpenter rolls dough and prepares cookies for her business Via's Cookies.

Cookies sit on a decorated plate inside bakery, Via's Cookies.

Cookies sit on a decorated plate inside the Via's Cookies bakery.

Do you ever speak to or make a personal connection with the students you’re donating to?

Yes, absolutely. I actually will have my network of connections send me the students, send me their contact and then I will speak directly with them. I will say, “Hey, I would love to be able to give you this money!” It’s usually about $100. Obviously, I can’t give that much right now because I’m a small business, but I usually try to make it that much. And they’re always like, “Yes, oh my gosh!” I just have them send me a bio, what they want to do and any links if they have their own little business or something. I want to plug them. If they have a GoFundMe, I’ll include that, all that stuff. I post their bios on my Instagram and my website.

Since you started your business, have you seen the importance of your donations rise?

I think that there is political unrest right now in America. Things are going to get worse before they get better. We are going to be facing a lot of issues on the concept of human rights, specifically within schools and within education. We’re seeing it right now. So I think that giving to the students who are struggling is probably going to get more valid as the years progress and as things get more uneasy.

During COVID-19 when I first started, it was very valid. Especially because COVID-19 killed a lot of people’s parents. It tore apart families and people’s support systems were gone. Just so much struggle, so very valid. And we’re still facing the repercussions of COVID-19, it’s still here and it’s not leaving. People are going to continue to struggle, and I think within the college scene specifically.

Do you think making gluten-free and dairy-free cookies available to your customers is worth all of the extra preparation and work?

When I worked at farmer’s markets, I remember this mother that came up and bought a bunch of cookies. She gave one to her kid and she looked at me and said, “Thank you so much.” I said, “Why? I’m just making cookies.” And she was like, “My kid has never had a baked good that was good. He’s had celiac disease his entire life. You know, he’s never been able to eat anything and you have given him so much happiness.” I was telling myself, “Oh, God, don’t cry.” It takes a while but the payoff is things like that kid being able to finally enjoy some baked goods. There are a lot of bakeries that can’t make things gluten-free because they have so much flour floating around in the air. I get a lot of business specifically from them. So it definitely evens out, you know within a business sense and giving sense, I suppose. People are finding happiness.

What is your favorite part of running Via’s Cookies?

Cookies are fun, cookies are great and they taste awesome. I like making new flavors, but it gets so repetitive. It can be cathartic at times, but other times I’m thinking about the other things that I could be doing. Essentially, I want to get people to take over making the cookies and delivering the cookies, all the cookie stuff so that I can separate myself and go do outreach. Speaking engagements, help students, market and travel.

I love talking to children. My favorite speaking engagement was as a guest speaker for the Youth Entrepreneurship Market, and I now actually teach with them on Wednesdays. I teach an entrepreneurship workshop for kids aged 11 to 18, which is really fun. It makes my heart feel good. One of the kids at that first speaking engagement was the moderator, so she interviewed me and it was so adorable. They had so many questions. They were so eager to know about every part of my business. I think some part of why I can connect with young children is because I started business things when I was very small. I got a paper route at nine or ten. I hired my brother and took on an additional route. I also worked with my dad at a pretty young age, so I was constantly seeing the interactions he had with customers. I think I just picked things up.

Why do you think it is so important that students attend college?

One thing I see is that a lot of people are choosing not to go to college, and that’s perfectly valid. I think, if I hadn’t gone to college, I would have had a very different way of thinking. I would be a lot more closed-minded. I’m from Ohio: I had all sorts of views before I went to college. I took a religion course, and it changed the way I look at religion. I took a philosophy course and it changed the way I look at humanity. I took this course called Scholarship for and by Women of Color and I saw all of these things that people were preaching about that are still happening right now. I realized that with a high school education, you’re never going to figure out any of that. You’re going to stay within the views you adopted as a high schooler, as someone living with their parents, as someone in this certain community. A lot of people never leave and they get stuck there and they’re just in an echo chamber of what people believe there. It is very important to go and seek out some sort of education that can help you discover your own way. So if I can help people get out of their echo chamber, of sometimes lies, for me it was, and stay in college and finish it out so they can elevate themselves into a career, that would be awesome. I think especially right now, people need that.