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Five Things to Know About Judy Wicks, the 2019 CoAS Commencement Speaker


May 23, 2019

Judy Wicks is an entrepreneur, author, speaker and community leader — and the 2019 Drexel College of Arts and Sciences Commencement Keynote speaker. As the founder of numerous businesses and nonprofits, including the Drexel-favorite White Dog Cafe, she is a leader in the sustainable business movement and an advocate for a more compassionate, eco-friendly and locally based economy.

Here are five things to know about the influential business leader:

Judy Wicks 2019 CoAS Commencement Speaker

1. She lived in an Inuit village.

After graduating from Lake Erie College with an English degree, Wicks set off to a remote Alaskan village as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. The experience, she says, was one of the most significant of her life, and completely transformed her worldview: “The villagers, they had no sense of envy, no sense of accumulation. Their happiness and their sense of security did not depend on money; it depended on community.”

2. She co-founded the original Free People’s Store. 

Through numerous for-profit and nonprofit ventures, Wicks has established a reputation as a successful entrepreneur — a title she earned at a young age. After landing in Philadelphia at 23, she co-founded the Free People’s Store, a clothing and lifestyle shop that reflected the anti-war ethos of her generation and catered to people under 30. The brand would later become Urban Outfitters (Wicks is no longer affiliated).

3. She spearheaded the farm-to-table movement.

Wicks is perhaps best known in Philadelphia as the founder of White Dog Cafe, which started as a humble muffin shop on the first floor of her home. After its founding in 1983, Wicks transformed the shop into a 200-seat restaurant — which quickly built a following for its fresh, in-season food — and opened an adjacent, fair-trade gift store called the Black Cat.

In growing the cafe, Wicks wove her philosophy of sustainability into every aspect of her business. She became a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, building a network of local farmers who treated animals humanely and invested in sustainable growing practices. She also put into place ethical business practices: paying a living wage, mentoring local students and becoming the first business in Pennsylvania to rely exclusively on local, renewable energy sources.

White Dog grew into a $5 million-dollar business, and became a hub for community talks, cultural events and activism. When Wicks sold the business in 2009, a unique contract ensured that the new owner would continue in its sustainable, local tradition.

4. She was named to Inc. magazine’s top 25 entrepreneurs list – alongside the likes of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Betsey Johnson.

In 2004, Inc. magazine recognized Wicks as one of 25 entrepreneurs who exemplify the drive and creativity of American business, “because she’s put in place more progressive business practices per square foot than any other entrepreneur.” Her commitment to sustainability has been an integral part of her success, even when it risked her bottom line.

As owner of the flourishing White Dog in the early 2000s, she realized that making a true impact would require more than a single sustainable business. In an uncommon move, she decided to share her business model and farmer contacts with her competitors — compromising her restaurant’s profitability to work toward a more sustainable local economy. She founded the nonprofit Fair Food Philly to help spread her farm purchasing practices, uniting local farmers with the Philly marketplace.

The move led to the creation of a farm stand in the Reading Terminal Market, the Local Food Guide and the Philly Farm and Food Fest. She also founded the White Dog Cafe Foundation, which still houses the community involvement arm of the restaurant under the name White Dog Community Enterprises.

5. From Weckerly’s Ice Cream to Remark Glass to Primal Supply Meats, she’s helping Philly entrepreneurs flourish.

With the goal of building a more sustainable, local economy, Wicks founded two nonprofits: the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, and the international Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).

In 2015, she founded the Circle of Aunts and Uncles, a multi-generational nonprofit that provides local businesses with financial support, social capital and advising from a group of 30-40 “aunts and uncles.” To date, the group has given out more than $100K, with priority funding given to eco-friendly businesses that provide basic-need goods, work cooperatively, or are owned by women and people of color. She also advocates for legislative change through Proud Pennsylvania, a grassroots citizen’s campaign.

Learn more about Drexel’s 2019 Commencement ceremonies.