ImpactPHL Perspectives, Volume 4: The Circle of Aunts & Uncles: Loans to Drive Local Community Wealth


About ImpactPHL Perspectives:

If you are curious about pursuing financial returns while influencing the positive growth of Greater Philadelphia and the world at large, then welcome to the conversation. ImpactPHL Perspectives is a multi-part series which explores the many facets of the impact economy in Greater Philadelphia from the perspectives of its doers, movers, shakers, and agents of change. Each volume is written directly by a leader in this space, to discuss best practices and share lessons learned, while challenging our assumptions about the returns - financial and societal - on engagement in the impact economy. For more of ImpactPHL Perspectives, check out the ImpactPHL Blog.


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By Judy Wicks and Katherine Rapin, The Circle of Aunts & Uncles 

In a sunny studio crowded with mannequins, racks of paper patterns, and second-hand sewing machines, Nicole Haddad examined the white crochet fabric stretched across a 50-foot table. She and her brother, Jordan, were preparing to print, the first step of many in Lobo Mau’s “slow fashion” process of making clothes.

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Nicole started the design company out of her Philadelphia apartment in 2008, and she’s since grown her business to secure a 5th-floor studio in the recently renovated Bok Building. She values her distinctive and well-fitting clothing as an alternative to human and environmentally exploitative  “fast fashion.” “I want to have a small factory where we can oversee the quality of everything and continuously be training people to provide jobs here in South Philadelphia,” Nicole says.

That’s where Philly’s impactful local investment project, The Circle of Aunts and Uncles, comes in. A group of 35 members provides low-interest loans and social capital to aspiring entrepreneurs in Philadelphia. Nicole at Lobo Mau recently received a loan for $10,000 to replace a broken sewing machine, invest in American-milled fabrics, and keep her online store up-to-date. It’s a huge boost for the company’s growth.

"WE FEEL AS THOUGH WE'RE PROVIDING SUPPORT FOR THOSE THAT DON'T HAVE FAMILY MEMBERS WITH THE MONEY OR EXPERTISE THAT THE ENTREPRENEURS NEED AT THIS STAGE IN THEIR CAREERS."

Lobo Mau is just one of the many independently-owned businesses that have received loans through the Circle of Aunts and Uncles; the group has provided guidance and funds for designers, chefs, bakers, butchers, and ice cream makers – loaning a total of more than $100,000 since 2015. Loans are extended up to $12,000 at a 3% interest rate for three years.

Local author, activist, and community leader, Judy Wicks, started the project when she found herself a retired baby boomer. She had long itched to do something to cultivate the talents and abilities that go unrealized in under-resourced communities, often because of lack of access to education or capital.  “I had the idea to match the potential of the retired baby boomers with the potential of unrealized talents and under-resourced entrepreneurs in our community,” Wicks says. “The vision is that we co-create a more just and compassionate, vibrant and inclusive economy.”

Led by Wicks and co-chair Kate Houstoun, the Circle of Aunts and Uncles seeks to build local self-reliance by supporting businesses that produce basic needs – like food and clothing. Priority is given to entrepreneurs who demonstrate financial need, are from a historically marginalized population, aspire to implement eco-friendly business practices, and plan to maintain local independent ownership.

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Often, potential borrowers are recruited by the Circle’s partner organization, The Enterprise Center, which plays a key role in the project. The CDFI nonprofit manages funds (disbursing loans and receiving monthly payments), provides a staff member who recruits entrepreneurs, sets up interviews for prospective borrowers with the Aunts and Uncles, helps provide social capital to the borrowers and keeps the group informed about the state of finances.

The group’s eight advisors – directors of local organizations like the Merchant’s Fund, Women’s Opportunity Resource, Entrepreneur Works, and Kiva zip – also refer entrepreneurs. They attend quarterly gatherings at which selected business owners present. At these gatherings, which take place in the homes of the Aunts and Uncles, the potential borrowers share a meal with the Aunts and Uncles before pitching their businesses.
“We develop relationships right from the beginning,” explains Wicks. The group wants to establish near-familial support. “We feel as though we’re providing support for those that don’t have family members with the money and/or the experience that [the entrepreneurs] need at this stage in their careers,” Wicks says. And often, it’s not just money these entrepreneurs need. They also need social capital like guidance, strategic planning, and connections to customers, suppliers and other mentors in their industry.

The relationships that form between the lenders and borrowers are often the most valuable result of the Aunts and Uncles’ work. Paul Rathblott joined the project as an Uncle in the first year. Raised in Philadelphia, he worked as a corporate lawyer for 25 years and then started a software development company, which he ran for 25 years. Now retired, he spends time working with Vanessa Jerolmack, owner of Taco Angeleno, who received a loan from the Circle in November 2016.

THE CIRCLE OF AUNTS AND UNCLES HAS PROVIDED GUIDANCE AND FUNDS FOR DESIGNERS, CHEFS, BAKERS, BUTCHERS, AND ICECREAM MAKERS - LOANING A TOTAL OF MORE THAN $100,000 SINCE 2015.

“She came to us asking for a loan of $12,000 to increase the size of her truck so she could add new products to the menu,” Rathblott remembers. He sat down with her to look at the numbers and determined that the increase in sales wouldn’t be enough to justify the investment – something Jerolmack hadn’t considered. “She decided to retrofit the existing cart, and then spend the leftover money to add electric to her property,” Rathblott says. He and Jerolmack recently worked together to strategically expand the Taco Angeleno menu to increase sales for the 2017 season. “The mentorship is the part I like,” Rathblott says, “Working with somebody who is so energetic and bright and passionate is a very rewarding experience.” The entrepreneurs who become “Nieces and Nephews” are driven and hardworking individuals who seek to benefit their community.

Pete Merzbacher, the owner of Philly Bread, was among the first Nephews to join the circle in 2015. After applying for a loan in 2015 and being declined because of inadequate bookkeeping, Merzbacher received guidance from Ted Lebow – serial entrepreneur, co-founder of Kitchen Table Consultants, and an Uncle since 2015. Lebow helped Merzbacher get organized and keep his books in shape so that when he reapplied the following year, Philly Bread received the $5,000 loan for oven and bakery repairs.
Now, Philly Bread is looking to expand to a larger bakery. One of their well-known products – the Philly Muffin – is beloved by many local cafes and restaurants and recently took up a spot on the shelves at ShopRite. As he described his product: “It’s approachable but original; premium but not too expensive.”

It’s bread – a basic need – that’s made in and unique to Philly; it’s precisely the products that the Aunts & Uncles work to make more available.  “Having independently owned businesses gives unique character to Philadelphia,” Wicks says. “And it supports our local economy. If we buy from locally owned stores –merchandise that is locally processed or manufactured – then we’re keeping that money circulating within our community to build our community wealth.”

The Circle of Aunts and Uncles hopes to perfect their model for investment in the local economy, eventually sharing it with other communities. It’s crucial for the vitality of our cities and the quality of life of residents. These days, “We don’t know who makes our clothes, or bakes our bread, or makes our ice cream,” Wicks says, “The Circle of Aunts and Uncles provides a way of developing these authentic relationships that have historically formed the basis of community life.”


Author, activist and entrepreneur, Judy Wicks founded Philadelphia’s iconic White Dog Cafe in 1983, which became a pioneer in the local food movement and a model in sustainable business practices. In 2000, Judy founded Fair Food Philly and in 2001 the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia. A national leader in the new economy movement, Judy cofounded BALLE - Business Alliance for Local Living Economies in 2001. Judy’s memoir Good Morning, Beautiful Business won a national gold medal for business leadership in 2014 and has been translated into Chinese and Korean. In 2015, she founded the Circle of Aunts & Uncles, a micro loan fund

Writer and photographer Katherine Rapin shares stories of growers, chefs, artisans and eaters. She's the associate editor of Edible Philly, and her work has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Foodnetwork.com, and the Biodynamics Journal. In her spare time, she interviews unsuspecting strangers while they eat lunch – you can read about her encounters at phillyforlunch.blogspot.com.