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Labovitz Awards honor Northland entrepreneurs

Carol Valentini gives thanks to many after being named Businessperson of the Year at Wednesday’s Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards event at the DECC. Steve Kuchera /

The Labovitz awards are meant to hold up individual success, but it was all the people offstage who received the most acclaim Wednesday.

"It may be an individual that starts a business, but it's a community that allows it to thrive," said Emily Vikre of Vikre Distillery, who won Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year along with co-owner and husband Joel Vikre.

The 25th annual Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards honored Northland business leaders in a variety of categories for taking personal risks and building the economy. A record 76 businesses were nominated, and a record attendance of more than 500 made it to the DECC despite the weather, including more than a few people with the last name Valentini.

"Four tables of my family showed up today without telling me," said Carol Valentini as she accepted the Businessperson of the Year award. "I need to thank my family, I need to thank my staff and I need to thank all of you."

Valentini, the founder of Valentini's Vicino Lago on London Road and current chair of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce board, especially thanked her mother and grandmother for carrying on the family business that started in 1934.

"It is that Iron Range work ethic that we inherited," Valentini said of her success. "I know for a fact growing up on the Iron Range in the '50s and '60s had a profound effect on me."

Also in the audience Wednesday afternoon was the namesake of the awards, Joel Labovitz, who came from California with his wife, Sharon, for the event.

"There are a lot of courageous people, and it does take courage, who have been nominated for these awards in the past 25 years," said Labovitz, 88, who was honored himself by Mayor Emily Larson as she declared Wednesday Joel Labovitz Day in Duluth.

Labovitz, known in part for growing his father's business, Maurices, planted the seed for the entrepreneur awards a quarter-century ago to shine a light on the efforts of small business making an impact in the region.

The University of Minnesota Duluth's Center for Economic Development puts on the awards luncheon, and director Elaine Hansen said the winners are representative of their categories, and that all the nominees have earned bragging rights.

Nancy Libersky, director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Minnesota, praised the many entrepreneurs in the Lake Superior Ballroom on Wednesday as "dynamic, passionate, skilled, crazy."

"It's because of you our economic future continues to be bright and prosperous."

2017 Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Award winners

  • Businessperson of the Year: Carol Valentini
  • Micro-Entrepreneur: Clover Valley Farms of Duluth — Cindy Hale
  • Emerging Entrepreneur: Vikre Distillery of Duluth — Emily and Joel Vikre
  • Established Entrepreneur: The Tongue and Groove Store of Duluth — Ann and Kyle Anderson
  • Mature Entrepreneur: The Black Woods Group of Duluth — Bryan Flaherty
  • Environmentally Engaged Entrepreneur: Yker Acres of Carlton — Sara and Matt Weik
  • Generations of Success Award: L&M Fleet Supply Co. of Grand Rapids — Erik Andersen, Del Matteson and Shawn Matteson; Grand Rapids
Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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