Katie Kalkman ’06 and Gabriel Harren ’10: Entrepreneurship is in their DNA

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March 4, 2020

By Mike Killeen

family in the snow

If you look up the definition of entrepreneur in a dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Katie Kalkman ’06 and Gabriel Harren ’10 right next to it.

Of course, that isn’t true. But like most exaggerations, there’s some truth to the statement.

Make no mistake, the married couple are entrepreneurs in every sense of the word. Even more impressive, their endeavors seek out the good and aim to help communities thrive.

“The way my brain works is, I always question how I have to live from an ethical standpoint and a personal betterment standpoint,” Harren said. “It’s just the way I work.

“That’s where this commitment to doing business that does good comes from and why I have the obsession that running people over because it’s in the rules of business, is (wrong). You can actually thrive focusing on ethics and goodness,” he said.

“I think (entrepreneurship) is in both of our DNAs,” Kalkman said. “We both are builders; we’re both creative. We’re both also doers. There’s more than just coming up with the ideas. You also have to have the appetite to do the work.”

A Warroad opportunity

Their latest entrepreneurial effort is in Harren’s hometown of Warroad, Minnesota, a city of 1,800 residents located on Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota.

Fölk School Warroad provides learning experiences in art, culture, local history, traditional crafts and exploration and enjoyment of local natural resources. The school’s goals are to inspire those it reaches to create with their hands, head and heart; enrich the lives and build community among Warroad residents and visitors; and contribute to a vibrant downtown and positive economic growth.

It is based on similar folk schools in Grand Marais, Bemidji and Ely. The chair of the Ely Folk School is SJU graduate and Artic explorer Paul Schurke ’77, who Harren and Kalkman consulted before starting up the Warroad school.

“We fell in love with the idea of a folk school,” said Harren, who is chair of the school’s board. “We have officially had three months of steady classes, and the viability is just incredible. Really, think of a folk school as a way to bring arts and culture and build community in a rural area.”

Although they bought a building in downtown Warroad that they hoped would be the school, they are holding off on putting any classes in it for the time being and making sure that there is enough interest in the classes that have been offered.    

“We’re off to a great start,” said Kalkman, who is the executive director of the school. “Some of those smaller communities don’t have as many community resources that bring people together. There are so many talented artists in Warroad and the folk school’s role is to create space for these artists to teach their crafts and naturally bring people together.

“I talk to people that have worked on the founding of the Grand Marais folk school, and they said they started out just like we did. Our hope is that we look like Grand Marais 20 years from now, that Warroad becomes a destination,” Kalkman added.

Warroad opportunity, part 2

Warroad is also home to another entrepreneurial effort they’ve worked on – Northern Toboggan Co. Harren’s father, John, started the company in 1995, and manufactures handmade crafted toboggans, wooden snowshoes and children’s pull sleds. 

Three years ago, Harren, Kalkman, Harren’s brother Jackson and his wife Solveig were enjoying a nice winter weekend in a cabin near Brainerd, Minnesota, when they sat down and tried to figure out a retirement path for John.

What they came up with is a partnership in which John would be their master craftsman and would step back into a part-time role beginning in three years (which is now beginning this year). Meanwhile, Gabriel leveraged some friends who were SJU graduates to create an “incredible brand guide.” Gabriel produced a new website (though he already had it rebuilt twice before), and Solveig stepped in as a business administrator.

“We went from working in the business, to working on the business,” said Gabriel Harren, who had worked in the shop since he was 10. “My brother has worked hard with the shop to improve the manufacturing efficiencies and making things ergonomically safe - bringing the principles of manufacturing engineering into the business, which is his professional expertise.

“We’ve had very accomplished woodworkers come to our shop, and they’re super impressed with all that we can make in that space,” Harren said. “It’s not a huge space, but it’s well-engineered in the way that we can shift from snowshoes to toboggans to pull sleds and custom sleds.”

A hub making an impact

Since 2005, Kalkman has been involved in six startups, most notably Impact Hub MSP. She was named executive director of the organization on Feb. 5, after she and Terri Barreiro – former director of the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship at CSB and SJU – co-founded the organization in the Twin Cities.

“It (the Impact Hub) just wasn’t getting the legs that I wanted it to, and when she (Barreiro) was set to retire (from the McNeely Center), she joined me and we just got renewed energy. We launched right after she retired from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s,” Kalkman said.

“I think having that extra partner kind of laid the groundwork. And of course, her networking in the Twin Cities, her vast United Way background and the fact she’s mentored so many people … having her on board was pivotal in the launching,” Kalkman said.

Based on Impact Hubs located around the world, Impact Hub MSP is like a small business incubator for ‘social businesses’ or businesses created to make the world a better place, Kalkman said, providing community, speakers, workshops and classes to entrepreneurs.

“Think of it like the (McNeely) Entrepreneurship Center at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s,” Kalkman said.

While Harren and Kalkman were both philosophy majors at SJU and CSB, they met through programming put on by the center. Kalkman was a member of the first Entrepreneur Scholars cohort offered through the center, although she was already involved in real estate, buying her first house at age 19 as a sophomore at CSB. She then started Collegeville Carpets, supplying carpeting to college dorm rooms, as the second student start-up business created through the center.

Although Harren was not a member of any Entrepreneur Scholars cohort, he met her at various functions offered by the center.

“Actually, I never found out about the program until it was too late, but I did leverage the resources,” Harren said. “So, I connected with (CSB/SJU global business leadership professor) Paul Marsnik, because I had a construction company that I ran in Alabama during college.

“I jokingly say I was a true entrepreneur – I didn’t have to pay any of the fees, but I leveraged all the resources of the McNeely Entrepreneurship Center,” Harren said.

Harren’s day job

Harren works in software development for Solution Design Group (sdg).

“I found a home to be an entrepreneur with an organization that aligns with my values,” he said. “Essentially what I do is, I work with organizations from start-ups to some of the largest companies in town to work out what their strategic initiatives are and really study the business, and then help them create a digital strategy those capabilities and initiatives.

“So, as an entrepreneur, I literally get paid to study businesses. It’s super fascinating,” Harren said. “I found after leaving SJU and entering the world of business that an organization that truly focuses on people and growth through good principles is rare. I’m beyond grateful to have a professional home at sdg and my colleagues are an extension of our family.”

Kalkman said that while many people find their endeavors risky, it’s “just a way of life” for the couple.

“We get a lot of energy from it,” she said. “When I say way of life, it’s just what can we do with the things that we’ve learned? What can we build? What can we try to do?

“The folk school is an example of that. I didn’t set out to create a folk school. I just thought it was a really cool experience and opportunity. The more I thought about it, the more I thought Warroad needed a folk school,” Kalkman said. “That’s part of being an entrepreneur – seeing opportunity and acting on it.

“When we come up with these ideas together, we bounce them off each other – we’re always brainstorming and discussing ideas. That’s the philosophers in us – we’re idea people. It’s nice to have a partner who can meet you where you’re at, and then help support your ambitions.”