In a modest Northeast Philadelphia house, Masha Lipkovsky, an immigrant from Ukraine, thinks big - in terms of tiers, pounds of butter and flour, and elaborate decorative finishes involving rhinestones, wings, and even a teapot made of sugar.
To say that Lipkovsky bakes cakes would grossly understate an artistic prowess behind an award-winning six-tier stunner inspired by the wedding dress of Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and an Alice in Wonderland creation that weighed more than 80 pounds and took three people to carry.
Her inspiration comes from "everywhere," she said.
"I am that weird person who will come up to wallpaper and touch it and take a picture of it, or come up to you in a mall and take a picture of your shoes or dress," Lipkovsky said.
If only small-business financing was as abundant, she said.
The 29-year-old mother of two and her husband, Vlad Kozhukhin, 35, a digital marketing consultant, had approached 20 to 25 banks to inquire about getting loans to help them elevate what has largely been a hobby to a full-fledged business.
No bank would deal with them, they said, telling them they first needed to establish a business track record - a maddening Catch-22 situation confronted by most entrepreneurs.
The U.S. Small Business Administration came through with a five-year, $22,000 loan from TD Bank, with an interest rate of 6 percent. Friends and family have agreed to lend an undisclosed amount, which Lipkovsky and Kozhukhin said they will repay with 3 percent interest.
Then came an opportunity through the Hebrew Free Loan Society of Greater Philadelphia, or HFL, compliments of a stranger.
HFL had provided Lipkovsky a $5,000 interest-free loan in 2007 that helped her pay for two years at Community College of Philadelphia. Now, as a 2014 graduate from the Art Institute of Philadelphia with a pastry degree, an internship at the acclaimed Pink Cake Box in Denville, N.J., and more than 1,000 cakes baked for family, friends, and neighbors, Lipkovsky had returned to Hebrew Free Loan's website with a desire to open a custom-cakes business.
She was researching whether HFL would allow personal loans - its sole offering since its inception 30 years ago - to be used for entrepreneurial purposes. She found something better:
A business-loan fund had been established by Montgomery County serial entrepreneur Jordan Berman to honor his late son Richard, who died in 2011 of leukemia at 54. Richard Berman had created an automotive-parts distribution business in 1978 that is now publicly traded Dorman Products in Colmar.
The R&B Business Loan Fund at Congregation Beth Or is sponsored by the Maple Glen synagogue, where Richard Berman had been a member, and administered by HFL. It offers no-interest, nonsectarian loans of as much as $15,000.
To qualify, recipients must have two credit-worthy cosigners.
Lipkovsky, her husband, and HFL are expected to close soon on a $15,000 R&B business loan, which will enable Lipkovsky to finalize lease arrangements on commercial space in Warminster that will be home to Unik Cakes, due to open in late October.
"I am unique with a k," she said, explaining the spelling.
And impressive, said Marshal Granor, copresident of HFL with his wife, Tamar. He also serves on the R&B business-loan committee.
"We were blown away by how carefully she has developed her dream," Marshal Granor said of Lipkovsky. "So many entrepreneurs jump into business and only then find out the reality. She approached it in a very mature and comprehensive fashion. Training, internship at a very major player in the high-end cake business . . . establishing oneself with awards and local recognition, expanding social-media presence.
"Wow, how can you not be inspired by that - isn't that the path to the American dream?"
Lipkovsky became a U.S. citizen in 2009, a month after her first child was born. She watches news reports on the turmoil in Ukraine, worrying for family still living there - and grateful that because of a man she has never met, a long-held business aspiration can be realized in her new homeland.
Tears spilling from her eyes, she mentioned her two sons and said she understands why Jordan Berman would want to do something to further his son's legacy.
"I would probably do the same," she said. "I would want to remember them for what they wanted in life, God forbid."
Owner and pastry chef Masha Lipkovsky talks about her custom-cake business, Unik Cakes, at www.inquirer.com/business
To read Diane Mastrull's Sunday story on the business-loan fund created by entrepreneur Jordan Berman, go to www.inquirer.com/loans