The Greening of Business

An unusual small-business movement took root in Philadelphia 10 years ago, created by a woman known more at the time for her inventiveness in the kitchen.

Restaurateur Judy Wicks, then owner of White Dog Cafe, an organic eatery in West Philadelphia, wanted to inspire a new economy - one centered on businesses like hers that valued social and environmental impact as well as profit.

What was Wicks' ambition a decade ago is now not only a reality, but also a growing business sector and an increasingly influential economic force in the region.

And playing a leading role in that empowerment is a nonprofit organization Wicks formed in 2001, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia. In this, SBN's 10th year, Wicks has left its board of directors, in part to "allow new leadership and new ideas."

"I think it's healthy to do that," the 64-year-old Fitler Square resident, now also retired from the restaurant business, said of her decision to step away from SBN as anything other than an informal adviser. "There are too many situations where we founders keep hanging around, and people keep looking to the founders for their opinion."

What SBN evolves into will depend, at least in the immediate future, on another woman with vision and determination, who has already made quite an imprint on the advocacy group, Leanne Krueger-Braneky.

She was 27 when she accepted the job as SBN executive director in 2004, becoming its first, and only, paid staff member. Her predecessor was on White Dog's payroll - SBN then was part of Wicks' White Dog Foundation.

SBN is now financially independent and has not stopped expanding, in staff or membership, since Krueger-Braneky arrived. Its employees total nine; its fee-paying member companies, 500; its annual budget, just under $900,000, up from $100,000 when she was hired.

There has been progress, too, on erasing the misconception Krueger-Braneky routinely encountered in the early days: "that we were a hippie-business network." That has been replaced by recognition that this woman, who makes it a point to wear professional attire, is part of a dead-serious business initiative.

"You kind of know within the first 15 minutes [of meeting her], if not less, that she's going to carry the ball and get you whatever she says she's going to do," said Geraldine Wang, a program director at William Penn Foundation, which has supported SBN with nearly $500,000 in funding since 2007. "We immediately saw Leanne's leadership and bet on her - and she's really delivered."

A minister's wife with a head for business and a heart for social causes, Krueger-Braneky has an M.B.A. in urban economic development from Eastern University in St. Davids - a program that appealed to her because it allowed her to take community-organizing courses along with finance and accounting.

After completing her graduate work and spending a year in South Africa, Krueger-Braneky returned to Philadelphia to find the job opportunity at SBN. She considered it a perfect match with her passion for economic justice and her economic-development skills, along with her personal commitment to sustainability.

What was most important, Wicks said, was finding funding.

"In the very beginning, foundations would say, 'Why should we fund a business organization? Businesses can fund themselves,' " she recalled. "In this case, businesses were small and struggling."

Getting them to join SBN was also tough, Wicks said, until they understood sustainability was not "a leftist plot."

So Krueger-Braneky has focused on making sure SBN is delivering what businesses with a sustainability mission say they most need: a place to connect with other like-minded businesses.

Networking events are held to give SBN members opportunities to "walk away with business cards and potential clients and potential partners," Krueger-Braneky said. The Social Venture Institute, an entrepreneurship-training program held each November, highlights successes and failures to learn from. SBN's annual business directory, a comprehensive listing of all members and their services, has become a dependable guide for those who want to support green companies.

"I use that as my yellow pages," said Jessica Anderson, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, an SBN member.

Krueger-Braneky said SBN's aim now was "to make sure everything we're doing is really driven by business need." Even the annual membership fee, which ranges from $125 to $1,500 depending on the level of service, is negotiable.

Tracy and Mia Levesque, owners of YIKES, a Northern Liberties company that designs and develops websites, offered a critique common among SBN members: that the events it puts on are often heavy on lectures and presentations and not big enough on opportunities for businesses to meet businesses - and consequently increase their own business prospects.

"At the end of the day, we all need to bring income into our businesses," Tracy Levesque said.

As part of a national organization Wicks also founded in 2001 - Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE - SBN is one of 80 sustainability networks in the United States and Canada representing 23,000 businesses.

Krueger-Braneky is in demand as a consultant to other cities interested in developing a more comprehensive sustainable economy. But she acknowledged she has plenty of work to do at home, including growing SBN's membership to at least 1,000 companies, "so that we really could have a voice of local small business in Philadelphia."

While SBN played a role in persuading City Council in 2009 to approve a tax credit for certified sustainable businesses, the agency has largely "been in a reactive policy role. . . . We think we could be more effective if we're proactive," Krueger-Braneky said.

That will be a challenging transition, said Katherine Gajewski, Philadelphia's director of sustainability. SBN will have to be careful not to lose focus on its membership, while also "looking at the overall economy . . . and thinking about businesses who aren't members," she said.

For SBN's first 10 years, Gajewski has only praise, crediting it with getting the city to think of its own Greenworks initiative "as an economic-development plan as much as a pure sustainability plan, and thinking about the priorities and investments we set" to create demands for certain industries.

On Sansom Street, Sarah Van Aken, owner of SA VA - a thriving design center, factory, and retail store specializing in ethically sourced and produced clothing - is in an industry niche with few peers and perhaps fewer resources, she said, especially for start-ups.

Acknowledging a "self-serving agenda," Van Aken, an SBN member, said she has been hoping for future initiatives focused on "reviving and growing the apparel industry here in the city."

In return, she said, she is willing to "help someone else get a leg up and not go through what I had to go through."

 


More than 500 local businesses help form the story of Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia. For video of the owner of one of them, SA VA, an ethical clothing design studio, garment center, and retail store in Center City, as well as SBN's executive director, go to www.philly.com/business


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466

or dmastrull@phillynews.com.