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Want to become an Aunt or Uncle? Wicks says she is looking to expand the family a bit. If you’re interested, contact the group here.

You can also become a “silent” member by donating to The Circle of Aunts and Uncles at The Enterprise Center in West Philly.

And the group is always looking for volunteers with business skills who can mentor entrepreneurs on things like bookeeping, marketing, writing business plans and growing a company.

Click here to read more about the vision, purpose, and strategy. Contact them here.

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Judy Wicks on "Beautiful" Business

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Judy Wicks’ Not-Shark Tank

The legendary Philly restaurateur and activist has coralled her baby boomer friends to help new entrepreneurs get ahead. It’s her way of creating the city she wants to live in

The legendary Philly restaurateur and activist has coralled her baby boomer friends to help new entrepreneurs get ahead. It’s her way of creating the city she wants to live in

In 1983, when Judy Wicks was working to open the White Dog Cafe, the farm to table restaurant she ran for 26 years on the first floor of her West Philly rowhome, she did what countless other budding entrepreneurs have done for generations: She borrowed money from family—$9,000 from her mom and $12,000 from her grandmother.

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With that, Wicks was on her way to becoming the Philly legend we all know, a pioneer of award-winning food (at a time when the city had little of it), as well as social, environmental and good business activism. From her little muffin shop-turned-restaurant in West Philly, Wicks championed humane and earth-friendly farming, and organic ingredients before that was considered even doable; paid her employees a living wage; turned the White Dog into the first business in Pennsylvania to purchase all of its electricity from renewable energy sources; founded the Sustainable Business Network, Fair Food Philly, and the national Business Alliance for a Local Living Economy.

Philadelphia is a far better place because of everything Judy Wicks spearheaded in the last 35 years, starting with her restaurant. But that restaurant? It’s hard to see how the White Dog could have gotten off the ground without the $21,000 in loans from Wicks’ family, something the now-retired restaurateur thinks about a lot these days. She knows there are so many young people with great ideas for businesses that could change their city and the world. But not everyone has mothers and grandmothers—or aunts and uncles—who can stake them a loan.

“There is all this underutilized potential of our youth who don’t have family who support them,” Wicks says. “That’s a real handicap for them.”

“The aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews are co-creating the local economy we want to live in,” Wicks says. “More and more, it’s becoming clear that the main struggle we’re having is corporation vs community. Corporations are controlling much more of the economy, food, media, government. We’re creating an energy field around the idea of local businesses.”

So Wicks is doing what she’s done for decades when she thinks of something that could make her city better—leading the way. In 2015, she launched The Circle of Aunts and Uncles, recruiting about 35 of her friends to give loans, contacts and advice to young entrepreneurs in Philly who don’t have access to the resources they need to grow their businesses.

To date, the group has given out more than $100,000 to 12 different local businesses, most owned by women and/or people of color, a group in particular with less access to financial and social capital resources. The three-year loans, up to $12,000 each, are at 3 percent interest. They are funded by the Aunts and Uncles, who joined with initial contributions of $2,000 each and made subsequent donations of $1,000 annually.

True to Wicks’ passions, her Circle looks for companies that make or distribute basic needs, like food, energy, clothes, housing supplies. So far, they have only funded food and clothing businesses, including Weckerly’s Ice Cream, Primal Supply Meats, Fason de Viv and Heres2CoolStuff. After sending in their applications for review, businesses under consideration join Aunts and Uncles for a dinner—held four times a year, often in someone’s home—at which they make their pitch and answer questions. Each, in addition to funding, gains a smaller group of aunts and uncles to use as sounding boards, advisers and to help them drum up business—like bringing friends to shop at Lobo Mau’s Bok Building boutique, or holding a summer party at Taco Angeleno’s West Philly truck. It is, Wicks notes, the “opposite of Shark Tank”—intentionally.

“The aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews are co-creating the local economy we want to live in,” Wicks says. “More and more, it’s becoming clear that the main struggle we’re having is corporation vs community. Corporations are controlling much more of the economy, food, media, government. We’re creating an energy field around the idea of local businesses.”

The businesses considered for loans are usually referred to Aunts and Uncles through West Philly’s Enterprise Center. which houses and manages the loan fund, or from other collaborators like Kiva Zip, Entrepreneur Works or the Corzo Center at University of the Arts. Most of the businesses have already been producing and selling their products in some way by the time they get to Wicks’ Circle. The loans are for growing, or opening a storefront, or buying necessary equipment. Remark Glass, for instance, received money this month for new kilns in their Bok studio; Nicole Haddad at Lobo Mau—which makes athleisure wear from sustainable material, all manufactured in Philly—sought funds to help develop her own fabrics.

Aunts & Uncles at Taco Angelinos with proprietress Vanessa Jerolmack. (Wicks second from right.) Photo: Kate Houstoun

“I was not able to get money from family, so I’ve been slowly, slowly climbing the rope,” says Haddad, whose “aunt” was a $100,000 student loan that helped her launch her business—but put her in debt. “We can now do things developmentally for the business that we couldn’t. And, we have Judy Wicks. She’s an outside the box thinker, always trying to come up with interesting ways to reach others in the city. She’s exactly what we need as a mentor.”

Wicks has been thinking about something like Circle of Aunts and Uncles, in some way, since she herself was a budding entrepreneur. She recalls being 22 years old, a “clueless white suburbanite” when she moved to Philly and co-founded Free People (the store that became Urban Outfitters, which she has no part in). One afternoon soon after she moved here, Wicks was walking by West Philadelphia High School, when a young African American teenager complimented her outfit. At the time, Wicks had really never met black people before, and she found it interesting that the girl would even notice her. But even then, she was thinking of the future—maybe the girl had a talent for fashion, maybe if she had the opportunity, she could go on to be a designer. “That incident stuck with me,” Wicks says.

The Aunts and Uncles share with Wicks—as with all of us who live in and love cities—a desire to see more of what makes the city vibrant: Neighborhoods overflowing with a diverse array of small businesses, a creative landscape that is unique to Philadelphia, and feels resurgent.

More than 40 years later, the Circle is just one of the projects Wicks has taken on since she “retired” in 2009 after selling the White Dog Cafe and, later, decamping to Fitler Square where the longtime West Philly fixture renovated her house so it runs (at least in summer) entirely on solar energy. She published a raucous memoir; speaks to groups around the country about creating sustainable communities; spent Thanksgiving of 2016 at Standing Rock, cooking dinner for Native Americans protesting the Dakota Pipeline. Meanwhile many of her baby boomer friends were doing what retired people of means do: “Farting around,” as Wicks puts it. “Baby boomers spend all our time traveling. Meanwhile, we have all these crises here at home.”

Wicks announced her intention to launch the Circle at an annual summer solstice party in 2015. Right away, Kate Houstoun—who helped lead the Sustainable Business Network with Wicks—volunteered to help co-chair the group. Jane Pepper, longtime former head of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, was the first to sign up, followed by several of Wicks’ longtime friends, including businessman and philanthropist Ted Reed; businessman Steve Weinberg; and Laura Kind McKenna, who formerly ran the Patricia Kind Family Foundation. (Most, but not all, the members are Wicks’ peers.) “I was surprised by how many said ‘Yes,’” Wicks says.

Pepper is less surprised: “If you look around the table when we have our meetings, a huge part of why we’re there is because of Judy. She’s done amazing things, and if she thought it was a good idea, then let’s go for it.”

Like most of the aunts and uncles, Pepper has no experience with running her own business—something Wicks admits is a flaw in the current makeup of the group. But they share with Wicks—as with all of us who live in and love cities—a desire to see more of what makes cities vibrant: Neighborhoods overflowing with a diverse array of small businesses, a creative landscape that is unique to Philadelphia, and feels resurgent. Pepper recalls how much she learned about starting a business by listening to one of the Circle’s earliest nephews, Peter Merzbacher, of Philly Bread—the passion he started with, the things he had to master, like baking, hiring, doing taxes. She saw how thin he was, imagining to herself how many hours a day he spends to turn his calling into a successful business. And she’s seen him succeed—thanks in part to the loan he received from the Circle. Now that’s a story Pepper’s part of, because of this new gift that Wicks has imparted on her city.

“I’m lucky Judy mentioned this to me,” Pepper says. “Small businesses are such a huge part of the success of America. If I’m going to spend money on something, this is it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kate Houstoun’s role at Sustainable Business Network. She helped to lead SBN with Wicks.

Header photo: Kate Houstoun

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