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How Philly’s ‘Founding Mother of Sustainability’ is funding local social entrepreneurs

Judy Wicks and one of her dogs at her home. February 16, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongPeople


Editor's note: Generocity parent company Technically Media is a member of the Sustainable Business Network, which is mentioned in this story. That membership is not related to this story.
Once you’ve been dubbed Philadelphia’s “Founding Mother of Sustainability,” it would make sense for you to help foster the growth of young up-and-comers. That’s exactly what White Dog Cafe and Sustainable Business Network founder Judy Wicks is trying to do now.

Except, she’s calling herself an aunt.

The veteran social entrepreneur and author is a cofounder of the Circle of Aunts and Uncles, a local network of founders that make loans to low-income entrepreneurs and small business owners in Philadelphia. It’s part of Wicks’ vision for a new local economy — one that is driven more by the nurturing aspects of “feminine energy” and less by the traditional “masculine energy” that focuses on efficiency.

“We have a society that’s about greed and hoarding,” Wicks said. “We measure our success by how much we have instead of measuring by the health of our communities and environment. We need to move towards compassion in our financial exchanges.”

Wicks has been spreading that feminine energy throughout the city since she moved to Philadelphia from Ingomar in the suburbs of Pittsburgh with her then-husband, Richard Hayne. Two years after helping Hayne launch Free People (the store that would eventually grow into international retailer Urban Outfitters, where Hayne is still CEO), Wicks decided to depart both the business and the marriage.

That’s when she said she got into the restaurant business by accident. A car accident, to be specific.

Wicks was in the act of physically leaving her husband when she drove through a red light and crashed into another car. A witness to the accident asked Wicks if he could help her home. An act of generosity — except Wicks had just left her home and her husband and had no intention of going back.

“But now I had to fix the car,” she recalled. “I needed a job in order to fix the car.”

She was in luck. The witness happened to work in a local restaurant called La Terrasse and knew of an opening for a server position. Wicks gratefully took the job, and two years later she had worked her way up to general manager. By 1983, Wicks decided it was time to open up her own restaurant. But she wanted to do things a little differently.

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Wicks’s idea of what kind of food the “American restaurant” should serve was a callback to how meals were prepared when she was growing up in Ingomar: Her mother would buy all her food from the local farmers’ markets, and the Wicks family would supplement those meals with fresh produce they picked from their own garden.

“We ate local year-round,” Wicks said. “That’s just how I was raised.”

White Dog Cafe in University City.

White Dog Cafe in University City. (Photo by Flickr user MTSOfan, used under a Creative Commons license)

In time, White Dog would become just that. But it started out as a muffin and coffee takeout joint on the first floor of Wicks’s home. There was no room for seating, and since Wicks couldn’t afford to install exhaust ducts inside the house, all of the food was cooked on a charcoal grill in the back yard. And everything was local.

“The more imports you have, the more highfalutin you are,” she said. “I wanted simple, home-cooked, American meals my mother would make.”

And when Wicks discovered the pork products White Dog was selling were coming from factory farms, she said she was so horrified she immediately pulled pork off the menu until she found local farmers to supply her with pigs — that was followed by 100 percent grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and uncaged eggs. By 2000, all of White Dog’s food was sourced from local farms.

But it wasn’t enough. Wicks wanted all of Philadelphia to adopt her practices for the greater good.

“We needed to cooperate with other restaurants and share our suppliers with our competitors,” she said. “It’s no longer enough to have good practices in your own company. If you’re not doing everything you can to help others, including your competitors, to build a whole system of those values, then you’re not really serving the environment, the farm animals, the small farmers nor the citizens of Philadelphia.”

Wicks began a citywide campaign to persuade other Philly restaurants to buy from the local food system and adopt a sustainability-minded mission. Wicks said it was a turning point in her life. Giving away her competitive advantage was “scary,” she said, but it was necessary if she wanted to make larger-scale change. She calls it “leading with love.”

“Whether it’s what I do with my profits or how I make my money in the first place, the whole idea of it is to open your heart,” she said. “What do you care about? How are we and what we do as business owners and consumers creating the world we want to live in?”

"It’s no longer enough to have good practices in your own company."
Judy Wicks

In 2001, Wicks launched the Sustainable Business Network. That same year, White Dog became the first business in the state to run on 100 percent wind power. She sold the cafe in 2009 to begin spreading her message across the globe through speaking events and her 2013 book, Good Morning, Beautiful Business.

“After I sold the restaurant, I thought ‘Well, I’m kind of a has-been now. The world is passing me by,'” Wicks said. But she was pleasantly surprised.

“When I go into a restaurant, people still recognize me. They honor me for sharing with others and getting this thing started. I feel very thanked,” she said. “Having that spirit of cooperation and generosity is part of this movement for a new economy.”

That’s the spirit she’s trying to foster with the Circle of Aunts and Uncles.

After witnessing some of her retired peers spending their savings on vacations, she was inspired to develop a more fulfilling way for local retired leaders in sustainability to play with their money: Invest it in the next generation and perpetuate the practices she helped spearhead.

Wicks contacted some of those friends and asked if they’d put $2,000 into a fund that would be used to make loans to low-income social entrepreneurs. Now with over $50,000 in the fund (housed by the The Enterprise Center), the group of friends get together a few times a year to dine and socialize with two entrepreneurs or mission-driven small business owners before hearing their pitches and making a decision on whether or not to deploy money from the fund. The group then provides the entrepreneur(s) with a support network and mentorship from members.

One of the first businesses to receive a loan from the Circle of Aunts and Uncles was local bakery Philly Bread. Wicks said the network wants to support entrepreneurs providing basic needs and building the capacity of the local food economy.

The Circle is one of a handful of side projects Wicks is working on. One of those projects is a local event series surrounding solar energy initiatives. Another is a blog. Though the medium varies from project to project, every one carries the same core message:

“We have to share ideas and resources with others, including our competitors,” she said. “I hope that I modeled that.”


Circle of Aunts and Uncles

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