Chef Paola Velez launches bakery to fight racism to create lasting change

In Bustle's Quick Questions , we asked female leaders for all the advice—from the best mentoring they've ever received to the questions they're still figuring out. Here, award-winning chef and founder of Bakers Against Racism, Paola Velez, talks about the “why” behind her work and her approach to leadership during tough times.

For Paola Velez, "when one door closes, another opens" has become her focus as an award-winning pastry chef, television personality and nonprofit baker The guiding principles of a racist co-founder’s career. Velez will tell you she's not one to just wait for the next opportunity, and her work history proves it. If another door didn't open for herself or her peers, she would open one.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Velez took a break from her job as executive pastry chef at Kith/Kin restaurant in Washington, D.C. Velez secured unemployment for her entire team, then was told that she herself couldn't collect unemployment benefits unless she applied for a job, which was virtually non-existent for pastry chefs at the time.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this system is so backwards. I pay taxes, I'm unemployed,'" she tells Bustle. It didn't take long for the Bronx-raised chef to see the bigger picture and realize that another group of taxpayers was being failed by the system with no excuse to defend themselves: the undocumented workforce.

Velez quickly turned her frustration into action—hosting a month-long pop-up fundraiser in April 2020 in partnership with Washington-based nonprofit Ayuda and Latin bar Serenata. Selling donuts inspired by Dominican heritage under the name "Doña Dona," Velez raised more than $1,000 for immigrant families in the Washington area. But it’s the emotional impact of the fundraiser that moves her most.

“People would message me privately and say, ‘Oh my God, you literally left groceries on my table,’” she recalled. “It was really heart-wrenching.”

On the last day of the pop-up in May 2020, the murder of George Floyd made national headlines. Velez found himself overwhelmed. “I realized that as long as we have melanin in our skin, we will always be seen as other,” she said.

Fellow chef Willa Pelini invited Velez to create a similar fundraising pop-up to support black lives, but Velez told her it "wasn't enough." Determined to create lasting change, Velez began gathering all the resources from her Doña Dona efforts to facilitate a decentralized, ongoing nonprofit bake sale that anyone could join. The collective, called Bakers Against Racism, was co-founded in June 2020 by Velez, Pelini and chef Rob Rubba.

The initial goal was to get 80 bakers involved, but Velez said the organization exceeded expectations. “It’s bigger than me,” she says, “and I strive to make it bigger than me.” Today, Bakers Against Racism reaches more than 200 U.S. cities, 40 states and four continents, raising more than $2.5 million, including Including local anti-racist organizations, abortion funds, Ukrainian relief organizations, and more.

As for Velez, she's still keeping doors open as much as possible — whether making the culinary industry safer for those entering it or trying out new creative projects. Below, Velez discusses tips for building a socially conscious career, what it means to lead selflessly, and the best advice she’s ever received.

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You founded Dona Dona and Anti-Racist Bakers after taking a break from work at the start of the pandemic. How did you find the motivation to take a typically frustrating career milestone and turn it into such an impactful project?

To be honest, I'm really frustrated. I just got a James Beard nomination [2020 Rising Star Chef of the Year] I didn't expect this. My biggest fear is to go supernova and burn bright for a short time and then disappear.

During the first few months of the pandemic, I didn’t even touch flour, butter, and sugar because I was depressed. I missed the birthday party. I missed my friend's wedding. I wasn't present in my life because I was trying to build a career. Then, it was all erased.

I'm numb. But even in 2013 when I was a line cook and feeling hopeless, I gave back. I would work at soup kitchens and do bake sales for hungry people, because I know [what that’s like]. I was working for $7 or $8 an hour at the time, and I knew what it was like to have to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table. I give to others because even if I can’t see the answer, I still have the ability to help others. It drives me crazy if I can help others without feeling like I'm better than them because I'm not.

Building a decentralized organization that is so focused on collective effort is a particularly powerful form of leadership. Do you have any suggestions or insights on how to achieve this?

I really had to face myself. I had to tell myself that if I was looking for fame and fortune, it couldn’t be Bakers Against Racism. If the goal was to become famous or known as an “activist,” that would be impossible for me. I can't be a puppet in this. [Anti-racist bakers] have to be something that others can seek refuge in, that they can seek help from, that they can find hope in, that they can trust. Especially now that the world is still a dumpster fire.

It's almost like ego death, making sure you suffocate anything that might have intrusive thoughts and make [your mission] about ego. Many nonprofits can sometimes go astray if leaders don’t realize it’s not about them. It’s about mission, it’s about community, it’s about “why.”

You’ve created your own unique path in the food industry—constantly integrating social justice into your culinary career. What advice would you give to those who are also looking to enter their industry with a socially conscious mission?

I didn’t make Bakers Against Racism or Dona Dona because I wanted to tell people about it. I know this is the right thing to do. [What you want to achieve] Is activism effective, or is it just about doing the right thing? Do you want to be known as an activist or just a giving chef?

I think once we break down that wall, once we break down the "why" we do something, things start to make sense. When you want to do something, you will find a way. If you want to do it in your career path or in your industry, you will find a way.

Is there anyone you regularly turn to for advice or guidance?

My close friends, my husband, and people who are not in our industry because our industry is so behind on HR policies and basic human rights. And then my [industry] friends like Rob Rubba. I also enjoyed talking with Cheryl Day (owner of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia).

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

When I was 19, I would donate my time to a nursing home. I would sit with them and we would chat. This very beautiful soul told me, “Paula, when you think about work, you don’t have to strive to be the best. You just have to be good enough, consistent, and good enough. In that consistency, you will become you A master at what he does.”

How do you relax after a long day?

I had no work-life balance. [ laugh. ] Going out to eat, supporting my friends, supporting the industry [is how I relax]. I've been trying to put my money where my mouth is. I think it’s really important for other chefs to support each other. It’s not about competition, it’s about supporting [each other] and eating. This is the true spirit of hospitality and made me feel relaxed. I don’t have to play, I don’t have to perform, as long as someone takes care of me, I can support them together.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.