Activist entrepreneur Judy Wicks started her first business when she was a little girl: she scavenged wood scraps from a construction site near her home, painted pictures on them, trundled them down to the highway in her toy wagon and sold them to passing motorists.
Nowadays, she has a bigger business — the combined annual revenues of her White Dog Cafe and Black Cat Gifts are about $5 million — but a shorter commute. She gets to work each morning by descending a flight of stairs. Living in the same building that houses her business saves wear on the wagon wheels, but that, says Wicks, is not its only advantage.
According to Wicks, a multitude of corporate sins arises in the space between the captains of industry and those affected by their decisions. Throughout her career, Wicks has rejected the bigger-is-better values of the standard business model in favor of an approach that keeps her in close contact with her customers, employees, community and natural environment. The insights that emerged from this commitment have made her a national leader in the movement for local, living economies.
Wicks, a 2007-08 fellow of the College’s Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center, will discuss that movement and the combination of communitarian and entrepreneurial spirits that motivate it in “Building Local Living Economies: Green, Fair and Fun,” a lecture she will deliver in Thomas Great Hall at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15.
Wicks is one of three Hepburn Fellows, individuals who bridge academics and practice in nontraditional or unconventional ways in any of the three broad areas the Hepburn Center supports — film and theater, civic engagement and women’s health. This fall, she has addressed a Bryn Mawr environmental-studies class and hosted a contingent of students at the White Dog Café after their tour of urban farms in Philadelphia.
The White Dog, Wicks’ 24-year-old West Philadelphia restaurant, is widely recognized as a model of sustainable, socially responsible business practice. The White Dog buys all its produce in season from local organic family farms. All the meat and poultry it serves is humanely raised, and its fish and seafood come from sustainable fisheries. It was the first business in Pennsylvania to buy 100 percent of its electricity from wind-generated power. Entry-level employees make a minimum “living wage” of $9 per hour.
Twenty percent of the business’s profits are contributed to White Dog Community Enterprises, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a local living economy in the Philadelphia region, and to other nonprofits.
The co-founder and co-chair of the international Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and founder of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, Wicks’ awards include the prestigious Business Enterprise Trust award, founded by Norman Lear, for creative leadership in combining sound business management with social vision. More recently, she received Business Ethics magazine’s first “Living Economy Award,” and the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year, 2005. Other accolades include American Benefactor’s “America ‘s 25 Most Generous Companies,” Oprah magazine’s “5 Amazingly Gifted and Giving Food Professionals,” and Inc. magazine’s 25 favorite entrepreneurs in the country.