How Latina entrepreneur Yaslyn Lora found her purpose through her small business, Lula’s Empanadas
Reaching what felt like a crossroads in her life, Lora turned to cooking and entrepreneurship — two staples in her family — to help get her on the right path.
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The period of time during and after pursuing a higher education degree can be a difficult one for many.
With thoughts of uncertainty and skepticism about what path to take next, it can be challenging to determine what your next life chapter may look like.
That was the situation Yaslyn Lora found herself in some years ago.
While finishing up her final year as an undergraduate communication major at Rider University, Lora felt like she was going through a midlife crisis.
Unsure what was going to do next, she eventually stumbled upon the vast field of public health.
“With public health, I saw the opportunity of giving back to the city that I come from,” Lora, a native of Paterson, New Jersey, said in an interview with AL DÍA.
However, pursuing her master’s degree in public health from Temple University proved to be a challenging time for her.
“I remember going through a very dark phase,” said Lora. “I was depressed.”
She often found herself struggling to get out of bed or get herself ready to walk out the door, feeling the pressures of being an only child and the first in the family to go to college.
There were many times when Lora would cry, seeking consolation from her mom and close friends. She didn’t really know what her purpose was.
“I wanted to know my purpose in life, and I just didn’t,” she said. “I felt like I love public health, I love communication. But there was just a part of me that wasn’t complete.”
While at one of her internships at the time, Lora would often bring different types of food to the office.
It was her consultant who brought it to Lora’s attention that she likes to cook.
Dating back to her undergrad years, she and her sorority sisters would host fundraising events, where she would often be the person in charge of cooking, with empanadas being her most popular dish — specifically, buffalo chicken empanadas.
After giving it some thought, Lora came to a profound realization.
“Even throughout my funk in my apartment in Philly, every time that I cooked or I was in the kitchen, that’s when I felt the livest,” she said.
From there, her consultant suggested she rent out an Airbnb and host small dinner parties with close friends and colleagues, and provide samples of a select few empanada flavors and sell them.
That later became a catalyst for the launch of Lora’s small business, Lula’s Empanadas, which started in December 2019.
Through her newfound entrepreneurialism, Lora was able to find the purpose that she felt had been missing.
However, Lula’s Empanadas does more than sell empanadas, and Lora’s roots and history with food goes far beyond her small business.
A Multigenerational Entrepreneurial Spirit
For as long as she can remember, Lora has always seen her mother cooking. And as she was growing up, she was always around the stove helping out.
“She taught me how to cook, cut vegetables, I would always be mashing with the mortar and pestle the garlic and salt, making homemade spices,” Lora recalled.
Lora’s mother learned all her cooking skills from her mother, who raised 11 children on her own.
Lora’s grandmother would spend entire days strip picking coffee and milking several gallons of milk a day, before coming home and making homemade ice cream treats.
“She became known all throughout her town [in the Dominican Republic], and even other towns, as well,” said Lora.
People from all over town would often line up in front of her house for her homemade treats, which then led her to start a convenience store. To keep things operating, her children would help run the store while she was out picking up ingredients.
Looking back, Lora’s mother, aunts and uncles feel that had their mother had guidance that helped her capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit she had within, they could have been among the most well-known families in the Dominican Republic.
“She just did it as a means of survival,” Lora said of her grandmother’s entrepreneurism, noting that some of her aunts and uncles are also entrepreneurs in their own right.
“So that was already in me since I was young,” she added. “I’m blessed and very fortunate that I was able to see that growing up.”
That entrepreneurial spirit runs in the family, and has been passed down through generations.
The Meaning Behind the Name
Throughout her life, food has been a way of bringing Lora’s family together.
With her small business, Lula’s Empanadas, she is able to honor those in her family who have been most influential to her.
“The name and logo both are representations of my parents,” said Lora.
Growing up, her father would often say, “I have long legs like a flamingo,” she said.
Her father has been instrumental in the woman Lora has become, always empowering her to be unafraid of being herself and doing what she feels suits her.
“He would say, ‘you just stand out…,’ and I wanted a logo that would stand out,” Lora added, referring to the logo of a flamingo as part of the company’s brand.
“Lula” is her mother’s nickname — short for Lourdes — given to her as a child by her own mother.
“I’m paying tribute to my mother’s teachings and upbringing by naming our business Lula, because she definitely was the person who taught me the foundation of cooking and I just ran with it,” Lora notes.
Any time the logo is seen, or the name of her business is heard, it serves as a connection to her parents and her family.
Food As a Love Language & Connector
As someone who has had a connection with food throughout most of her life, Lora has learned a lot about it.
Food goes far beyond the typical concepts of nutrition and nourishment needed for sustenance.
Professionally, now as a small business owner, food has been a way for Lora to mesh different cultures together.
Empanadas are a common and immensely popular dish in Dominican culture. However, through her cooking, Lora wants to use different recipes and ingredients to bring together the different cultures that make up the United States.
“I want to spread the Dominican culture, but it’s best when you mesh different cultures together,” she said.
She uses flavors like buffalo chicken, cajun shrimp, and scallion and cheese, and Indian curry empanadas as some key examples of such.
“Everyone wants to have buffalo wings at their Super Bowl gatherings. Cajun shrimp makes me think of New Orleans, scallions and different blends of cheese makes me think of the Asian culture and how heavily they use scallions in their dishes,” said Lora.
Through her different recipes, Lora makes her goal crystal clear: “Being able to mesh those cultures together and actually embrace our differences in spices in a way that’s flavorful and not too overpowering,” she said.
Other flavors include savory options like Thai sweet chili chicken, cheeseburger, barbecue pulled beef, veggie teriyaki, and sweet options like guava and cinnamon apple.
“I want it to be fun,” said Lora.
“Empanadas are like a representation of who I am… the flavors and just being bold and being able to think outside the box and try new things,” she added.
More Than Empanadas
Currently, Lora’s small business runs primarily during events across the New Jersey and tri-state area, and through catering orders.
Her dream is to have the business eventually evolve into a cart, and later a food truck.
“We’re so excited to see what the future holds,” said Lora.
However, Lula’s Empanadas does more than sell Dominican-style pastries, as Lora feels her purpose is much bigger than that.
Lora’s goal is to build Lula’s Foundation, a nonprofit wing of her small business specifically designed to provide mentorship for young women between the ages of 17 and 22 — “that crucial time period when they graduate high school,” she said.
As a first-generation Dominican-American and also first-generation college student, Lora remembers needing that guidance and mentorship upon graduating high school that she didn’t find until college.
“Whether they want to pursue a vocational career or start their own business or even a post-secondary education, that’s something I want to guide them through,” said Lora.
Through that concept, it gave way to the hashtag, #MoreThanEmpanadas.
“It’s crucial to our journey,” Lora added.
“We want to be able to say that we help our community, we want to be able to say that we aid in the development of young girls… young adults transitioning through life.
When she reflects on her own journey, coming from an adverse environment, Lora can’t help but think about those who are from similar communities, but weren’t blessed with the same parents and opportunities she was afforded.
Therefore, she is bent on providing opportunities to those who don’t have the same level of access.
For Lora, it is all about playing her part in helping the younger generation.
“The young generation is our future,” she said. “They are the ones who will be leading one day when I’m much older.”
The goal is to help guide them, and then see the trickling effect that it can have on others, the community, and future generations.
Her work all ties back to Lora’s passions and tapping into her purpose in life — combining cooking, communications and public health.
“It just encompasses everything that I believe in,” said Lora.