Hyperlocal Lending | Circle of Aunts & Uncles

By Judy Wicks, via her website 

Editors Note: Judy Wicks a social entrepreneur, author and cofounder of the Circle of Aunts and Uncles, a local network of business leaders who mentor and make loans to entrepreneurs of promise and small business owners in and around Philadelphia. It is a logical extension of Judy’s decades-long effort to build and promote Local Living Economy. We share her model in the hope it might inspire other communities to explore similar initiatives.

We envision a prosperous local economy that supplies basic needs to the local population, works in harmony with our ecosystem, supports vibrant, joyful, and inclusive community life and has broad-based business ownership reflecting the demographics of our population. – Judy Wicks

The Circle of Aunts & Uncles is a multi-generational project to provide low-interest loans and social capital to under-resourced entrepreneurs in order to co-create a more equitable, compassionate, sustainable, and vibrant local economy in the Greater Philadelphia region.

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Goals of the Project

We aspire to:

1.     Strengthen regional self-reliance by supporting the local production of basic needs, replacing imports with locally made products and services.

(This is of particular importance, not only to build the wealth of our communities through local ownership, but also to address climate change by reducing the carbon omissions of long distance shipping and to limit our reliance on global supply chains easily disrupted by increasingly unstable weather and social unrest.)

2.     Support local business owners in historically marginalized communities and populations, which will create jobs and increase community wealth and vibrancy.

3.     Build a community of lenders and entrepreneurs who experience the collective joy of working collaboratively toward a common vision for our region.

4.     Protect and regenerate our local ecosystem.


Our purpose is to offer qualified local entrepreneurs with demonstrated need a new vehicle for accessing local lenders offering low interest loans, as well as advice, business and connections. The Circle intentionally creates trusting relationships between lenders and borrowers, in the spirit of actual aunts and uncles, enabling investors to understand the true needs of the business and provide advice and contacts.

The focus of support is on businesses that:

a.  Produce, distribute and/or retail goods or services that serve the basic needs of our region in areas such as sustainable agriculture and food; renewable energy and no-emission transportation; sustainable clothing and textiles; green building materials and construction; eco-friendly cleaning; repair/reuse/recycle; health, well-being, and personal care; household furnishing, crafts and artisanal products; independent media; local arts and culture, neighborhood tourism, and technology that supports our local economy.

b. Import products not available locally using fair trade practices that support sustainable local economies where products originate, while filling a local need;

c. Export goods or services needed by other communities while providing our region with living wage jobs and a respect for the health of our local eco-system.

d. Develop growth and exit strategies that maintain local independent ownership, ie, not selling to a publicly traded corporation, but rather to employees, family members or another local entrepreneur.

e. Measures success by the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. How does the business impact people (employees, customers, suppliers, community) and the natural environment?

Priority is given, but not limited to entrepreneurs who:

a. Come from low-income communities and/or populations traditionally excluded from business ownership, such as women and people of color.

b. Embrace eco-friendly business practices, especially those that limit input of natural resources and output of waste, make use of waste from other businesses, and not only maintain, but restore and enhance our local eco-system.

c. Work cooperatively with other entrepreneurs to share resources, ideas and information in order to co-create a viable, fair and sustainable local economy.


Our network consists of approximately 30-40 “aunts and uncles” committed to supporting the next generation of local business owners.

meeting 1Members of the Circle are willing to accept no financial rate of return on loans in order to serve this vision, and value the “living return” they will receive by living in a more inclusive, sustainable and vibrant community. Each commits to loaning $2,000 per household to the loan fund at no interest, and to contribute advice, connections and other forms of social capital. The Aunts & Uncles are also advocates for local businesses and locally made products, creating a positive energy field that helps to popularize and grow our local economy.

To help identify qualified entrepreneurs, receive advise from professionals in the field, and partner in making loans and supporting entrepreneurs, the Circle maintains relationships with local business support organizations that provide training and/or loans and grants.  In Philadelphia, these include The Enterprise Center, Entrepreneur Works, the Merchant’s Fund, Untours Foundation, Kiva Zip, Women’s Opportunity Resource Center, Philadelphia Department of Commerce and the Sustainable Business Network. We are also partnering with Ben Cohen’s Barred Rock Fund that is beginning a focus on the Philadelphia region. They can provide much larger loans as well as equity investments, with a particular interest in minority-owned businesses. (Currently Barred Rock is focusing investment in Chester, PA.)

Fitler Square, Judy’s neighborhood in Philadelphia.

We organize three gatherings per year in the homes of Aunts & Uncles. The gatherings include a reception with buffet supper, and are intended to build community and have fun, while providing the opportunity to introduce the Circle to entrepreneurs. One or two potential entrepreneur borrowers are invited by a committee of the Circle, supported in preparation for the gathering (filling out an application, preparing for standard questions, etc.), and treated as welcome guests. The intent is to build a high-trust relationship between entrepreneurs and members, so that the entrepreneur can fully leverage the resources of the group—not just pitch their strengths.

The Aunts & Uncles receive materials in advance of the gathering with information about the prospective borrower including the purpose of the loan, history of the company, financials and other information, so that questions can be formulated in advance. After a brief presentation and discussion with the prospective borrower, members privately discuss their individual interest in supporting a borrower.  If advice is recommended, a group of members form a sub-circle to support the entrepreneur. They later recommend to the circle whether a loan should be considered. A vote on the loan is taken and majority rules.

Social Capital: Providing Non-financial resources

Like real life aunts and uncles, members of the Circle of Aunts & Uncles also provide social capital.  Here are examples:  Buying the entrepreneurs’ products to bring more business by spreading the word to friends and colleagues. Making connections for the entrepreneur such as with a store that might purchase their product or service, a reporter that could do a story, a successful friend in the same industry that could give advice, a local supplier that helps build local supply chains, or the availability of storage space, shared office space, or other resources.

Staff of Philly Bread
Staff of Philly Bread

One of our first loans was made to Philly Bread. They source local grain to produce great bread, a perfect example of entrepreneurs who are providing basic needs to our community while building the capacity of the local food economy.