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Park Rapids' Kraft part of hall of fame’s first class

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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Park Rapids entrepreneur Lorelei Kraft is among the first 25 women inducted into the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame, receiving the award Thursday in Wayzata.

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Gae Veit of Shingobee Builders, a commercial construction and development company, is the only other northern Minnesota woman to achieve the honor. She resides near Akeley.

The honor was established by the National Association of Women Business Owners of Minnesota to recognize the state’s “most successful female entrepreneurs and advocates who have made significant and enduring contributions to women’s entrepreneurial development in Minnesota.”

Kraft, who was the mastermind behind Candle Enterprises and created the idea for the Village of the Smoky Hills in Osage, joins Marilyn Carlson of the Radisson/Carlson Co., Geraldine Vogt of Mrs. Gerry’s Kitchen and Jill Blashack of Tastefully Simple as an award recipient.

A documentary co-produced by Kraft debuted at Thursday’s induction ceremony, showcasing the women “who built bridges, owned banks and started businesses in their kitchens and garages.”

The latter circumstance is autobiographical.

Kraft began candle making as a hobby in her garage in 1970. Moving to Minnesota in 1976, the former civic government teacher and soon-to-be single mom began to expand operations.

Although having no formal business training, she would propel her venture to become “a million-dollar business,” selling products internationally to 6,000 stores, including retail giants Walt Disney, Coldwater Creek and JC Penney.

In 1984, with the area experiencing more than 20 percent unemployment, Kraft engineered the idea for marketing quality crafts at the Village of the Smoky Hills.

In five weeks and five days -- which would become the title of her documentary -- a mercantile hamlet evolved.

The quaint shops in the pines became a regional tourist draw, earning the Minnesota Tourism Award for Regional Economic Development and the Travel Marketing Award two years in a row. She was named the Minnesota Woman Business Owner of the Year, the only rural woman to receive the award.

Kraft estimates that her businesses impacted the region by adding $53 million in revenue, employing 600 and drawing a half-million visitors to the Park Rapids area.

The video “Minnesota’s Great Women: 120 Years of Business Leadership,” which premiered Thursday, was co-produced with Jill Johnson of Johnson Consulting Services in Fridley. Johnson was among the inductees Thursday night.

Five were inducted posthumously. Kraft’s favorite is Elizabeth Quinlan, who founded her business, the Young-Quinlan Department Store, in downtown Minneapolis after the Civil War -- “at a time when a woman couldn’t legally own property if she was married, get loans in her own name or vote.”

While Kraft did not face the adversities of the Suffragettes, societal obstacles existed for the energetic entrepreneur.

But she persevered, receiving the Governor’s Entrepreneurship Award in 1988 and the Minnesota National Association of Women Business Owners Vision Award in 2011.

She has authored books on her experiences and frequently speaks on leadership and innovation.

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