When entrepreneurs develop their business models, typically they identify gaps in the market that their bright ideas can fill. Via Carpenter, a 2022 business graduate from Ithaca College took a different approach.
When she entered the school’s “Demo Day” startup competition, she envisioned creating a business that could help fill the finances gap that many college students experience every day.
She won that competition and its prize money, and later others, helping her to professionally launch Via’s Cookies in Ithaca three years ago.
By now, Carpenter’s Cookie Crumble Madness, Snickerdoodle, Lemmie Boy, and Chocolate Chip cookies are known far and wide throughout Upstate New York.
She sells them at pop-up sites such as Angry Mom Records on the Ithaca Commons and The Downstairs venue on Martin Luther King Jr. Street. She delivers her sugary treats to retailers like The Strand Cafe and Ithaca Bakery, and caters heaping platters to countless business and social gatherings across the region.
What may not be so well known by those munching on Carpenter’s confections is the philanthropic social justice mission at the core of her business. She uses a portion of earnings to make cash donations, as she calls them, to students struggling to meet essential expenses.
“One of my professors asked, ‘If you’re starting a business, you have to solve a problem. What problem do you want to solve?’” she recalled. “My mind jumped straight to ‘Giving back to students.’”
Carpenter made her first donation of $120 three months after launching Via’s Cookies, to Amaechi, a student attending college in New York who faced a hold on their registration.
Soon, she made another donation, to Tracie, a student in Chicago. Then another one to Yahaira, an undergrad at Ithaca College. A recent recipient is Sage, a student from Ithaca who experienced racism in high school and is now studying forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Thus far, Carpenter has distributed $2,063 in small donations to over a dozen students.
Carpenter promotes her gift-giving on her website and Instagram, through social justice partners like the Village at Ithaca, and by word of mouth. Her latest call for applicants ended on September 9, with a plan to provide five college students with donations of $200 each.
“I want to help people so that they can focus on their schoolwork,” she said. “And I have been able to do that. It’s been awesome.”
The premise of her philanthropy, Carpenter explained, is giving a percentage of her profits to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+ students. “I chose those designations because these are a lot of people I relate to,” Carpenter explained. “I am within these communities where there are typically very oppressed individuals.”
Carpenter’s mission is rooted in her own life experiences, including racism and bigotry as well as financial hardship. She grew up in rural Ohio, where she was one of a mere handful of students of color at her high school. She never went on field trips, because she knew her parents would have to struggle to come up with the fees.
She understood that she would have to excel in school in order to win scholarships, and take out college loans, and she did. But still the financial squeeze followed her all the way to Ithaca.
“They don’t tell you that when you get there, they expect you to pay thousands of dollars for things like laptops and books and all of this stuff,” Carpenter said. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute! How am I supposed to do this?’”
The answer: she worked three jobs during her freshman year to help pay the expenses. “In the midst of that, I am thinking, ‘This is the problem I want to solve.’ I want people to be okay. I want people like I was to know that there is something else out there that is valuing them, that knows they are struggling even though they have made it this far.”
Carpenter is a self-taught baker, having begun as a kid paging through a Betty Crocker cookbook in the kitchen of her childhood home. “I never took any baking course,” she said. “I just experimented for a long time.” Via’s Cookies began in her downtown Ithaca apartment’s kitchen, but now she leases space in a commercial kitchen to produce up to 500 cookies a week. Besides an inviting assortment of textures and flavors, Carpenter offers gluten-free and vegan as well as regular cookies.
She first came up with her own cookie recipe at 13 and cherishes baking cookies as a family tradition. “When I look back, I have made cookies with every single woman that mattered to me,” Carpenter recalled. “My great-grandma, my grandma, my mom. Every one of them had their signature cookie recipes.”
Her business actually has its origins in Olivia’s Cookies, which she started in her teens and sold to classmates to earn some needed cash. But her high school shut her down, she said, claiming that she was taking away business from the school lunch program. “This was some weird bias,” she recalled. “I think it was probably racism.”
Carpenter does not have a particular ambition to become a star pastry chef, but she has enjoyed her business versatility in expanding her brand. One of her partnerships is with Sweet Melissa’s Ice Cream Shop, creating ice cream cookie sandwiches and pairings such as lemon cookies with Key Lime scoops.
But Carpenter’s passion for social justice is something else. “It took me a while to even think of myself as a baker,” she said. “I have a sweet tooth. Essentially, I really like cookies. And I’m using cookies to spread a message.”
“The goal,” she added, “is to get my business to a place where I can form a foundation that gives thousands of dollars.”
In an interview about Via’s Cookies with her college newspaper in 2021, she said: “I want to pursue social justice, I want to make change in the world, I want to build up the people around me because as a student of color, I know the struggle. That’s what I include in my pitch because it’s the truth.”
She admires The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, powered by ice cream profits, whose website says it supports “grassroots groups that are led by the people most impacted by the legacies of white supremacy culture as they organize for racial equity, and social and environmental justice.”
When she is not pulling cookies out of the oven or making deliveries, Carpenter is busy with other aspects of her mission. She is frequently invited to lecture on entrepreneurship, and give motivational talks on racism and perseverance in the face of adversity. Recently, she was a guest speaker at the Community Foundation of Tompkins County’s Annual Celebration and a donor brunch hosted by the Ithaca College Alumni Association.
Carpenter’s fans may be in for another treat before long: The Ultimate Cookie Plate Cookbook, with recipes from pastry chefs around the world, and some of her own. “The base cookie recipe that I use is almost exactly the same from the one I made in high school,” Carpenter said. “So it’s come a long way.”