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At the Merchants Fund, a mom to hundreds of small businesses walks away

After 11 years at the business-assistance charity, Merchants Fund executive director Patricia Blakely is making a career change. To what, she doesn't know yet.

Patricia Blakely, executive director of the Merchants Fund, has helped get grants to nearly 500 small businesses during her 11 years in a job she now walks away, vowing not "to forget any of my children."
Patricia Blakely, executive director of the Merchants Fund, has helped get grants to nearly 500 small businesses during her 11 years in a job she now walks away, vowing not "to forget any of my children."Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI

Patricia Blakely has given birth just once. But ask her how many children she has and she'll tell you nearly 500.

All but daughter Zoe are Philadelphia small businesses.

After 11 years of visiting, counseling, celebrating, and worrying about them, Blakely, 60, says she's "exhausted." Consequently, Friday will be her last day as executive director of the Merchants Fund, a business-assistance charity. A permanent successor has not been named.

"Patricia Blakely has not only been the face of the Merchants Fund, but its heart and soul, as well," said Marc Coleman, who recently stepped down from the organization's board. "She will be sorely missed."

There are about five million reasons entrepreneurs throughout the city will likely never forget her. That's the dollar amount of grants Blakely has helped secure for them as the head of a private foundation begun in 1854 to help business people facing financial hardship at a time when there was no health or disability insurance, or pension plans, as its website states.

About a decade ago, as the numbers of indigent and retired business people once dependent on the Merchants Fund dwindled, its mission evolved to provide grants — now typically $10,000 — to small businesses in the city.

"We are a precious commodity, and we feel pretty strongly that when we do this capital infusion, we move the needle," Blakely said.

At her recommendation and with approval from the Merchants Fund's program committee, the dollars have been distributed to a variety of businesses across the city. Among them: a family-owned halal grocery in South Philadelphia, a composting facility in Nicetown, a Latin bakery in Juniata Park, and a men's clothing and footwear store in Southwest Philadelphia.

The fund had $16 million in assets at the end of 2017, when it gave out $580,000.

"What the Merchants Fund did for me is take me from the landing pad and fired me up and launched me," Bridget Morris, owner of Bella Forte Designs, a bookbinder that got its start in South Philadelphia, said in 2014. She said an $8,500 grant in 2012 enabled her to buy a hydraulic paper cutter, a special printer, and an embossing machine. It was an investment that Blakely supported because it would eliminate Morris' need to outsource production, which cuts into profits.

A year and a half ago, Morris moved the firm to Santa Fe, N.M., where "business is BOOMING," she wrote in an email a few days ago, citing Cartier, the Obama Foundation, acclaimed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, and Taschen Books as among Bella Forte's clients. "If you want to talk about a business that is successful, then certainly I can say, 'That's me.'"


In 2015, Insuk "Scott" Lee marveled not only over features of an interior makeover at his Lee's Deli at 47th Street and Baltimore Avenue, including a new floor, windows, and an air-conditioning unit, but over the woman who made $10,000 materialize to help pay for it — Blakely.

"A miracle," he proclaimed.

>> READ MORE: Dream Makeover

Blakely beamed when she recalled a $10,000 grant to Little Baby's in 2013 to help the Kensington-based company specializing in handmade small-batch ice cream develop wholesale and retail packaging to help even out the seasonal peaks and valleys of the industry. Earlier this month, Little Baby's reached another milestone, opening a scoop shop in Center City's hot East Market development district.

"My children — they grow up," Blakely said hours before Little Baby's Center City grand opening on Sept. 7. "It's beautiful."

While Blakely had experience in parenting, the Fairmount resident had none in entrepreneurship when she was hired by the Merchants Fund as a consultant in 2007 to administer the first business-grant cycle. In January 2008, she became only the fifth executive director in its 164-year history.

Her ability to figure out which businesses showed the kind of promise worth investing in came from being "the walking, talking poster girl for a liberal arts college education," Blakely said. "Ninety percent of our value proposition is logic, common sense, organization."

She had graduated from Bryn Mawr College as an art history major, and went on to get a master's degree in higher education administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

Two careers would precede her joining the Merchants Fund: as dean's assistant at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and program director at White-Williams Scholars, a college-preparatory program in Philadelphia for low-income, high-achieving high school students, now part of Philadelphia Futures.

Then came the opportunity to help "recreate this weird little foundation that has an orphan mission," Blakely said. "We didn't have a mission that was on the front edge of unmet need."

She said the decision to refocus on small businesses in need of capital — not a preferred customer base among banks — was met with skepticism from potential recipients and referral agencies who couldn't believe the $10,000 grants didn't have to be paid back.

"'It's got to be a scam,'" Blakely recalled someone from the city Commerce Department telling her.

Her response: "There actually is a free lunch, and it's nourishing."

Before Coleman, president and chief executive of the Tactile Group, a Philadelphia software development company, joined the Merchants Fund's board, he was one of its grant recipients, having run "face-first into the economic downturn of 2008." The $10,000 grant paid for new computers "that helped us keep our doors open," Coleman wrote in an email while on vacation in Germany.

"I saw Patricia Blakely take the time to visit forgotten commercial corridors. She took the time to understand how essential some of these businesses were to the diverse communities in which they were located and to the families that they supported," Coleman said. "She understood the complexities of immigrant communities."

Kersey Azocar saw that repeatedly in the four years nonprofit lender Finanta has been referring small business owners to Blakely for grant consideration. More than 40 have been awarded nearly $400,000 from the Merchants Fund, including 21 Latino and 18 African and African American, said Azocar, vice president of microlending.

"Our communities continue to confront different forms of mainstream financial exclusion and Patricia has played a key role to shift that reality," Azocar said.

So why would someone leave a job handing out free money?

Mostly because she was worn out, Blakely insisted. Each grant cycle (there are two a year) has involved her visiting 40 to 50 businesses, she said, and doing a fair amount of homework. One particular applicant required her to spend hours reading technical manuals on coin-operated laundry facilities.

For most of her 11 years at the Merchants Fund, she's been a one-person operation in her modest outpost on the 10th floor of an office building on Walnut Street near 15th. She had part-time help the last three years.

"I want to work someplace where there's more than just me," Blakely said.

Where that is she's not sure. Not that she won't lapse into old habits.

"When I go to Chestnut Hill, I'm still going to go in and see Molly at Threadwell and say, 'Hey,'" Blakely said.

Moms just can't resist checking on their kids.