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Interview: Marilyn Carlson Nelson On Retirement, Business & Human Rights

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A local business woman is being honored for her global efforts.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson has been recognized by the White House and will receive the Public Leadership Award from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs next week for her work to stop sex trafficking.

She talked with me recently about her commitment to that cause, her recent retirement from her family-owned travel and hospitality company and her passions.

Carlson Nelson is proud to have served as the CEO and Board Chair of the family business, Carlson Companies – a business she inherited from her father that’s known worldwide for Radisson hotels, Country Inns, TGI Friday restaurants, and travel businesses.

Carlson Companies was the first major travel company to take a stand against sexual exploitation of children.

“How could we protect our own grandchildren and children if we don’t think somehow about these children that are abducted or sold into this kind of 21st Century slavery,” she said.

Carlson Nelson established a training program and code of conduct for workers to recognize and report human trafficking. It has become a world model now used by other major hotel chains, as well as Delta Airlines.

And it’s not the first time she’s taken a bold stand. She recently joined other business leaders in support of same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

“I have stepped out on the marriage issue, and I feel very strongly that that’s a human rights issue,” she said. “And if we ever accept that we would reduce the rights of others, we can be vulnerable that someone someday may reduce ours.”

I asked her if she had any regrets.

“I’d love to start over again,” Carlson Nelson said.

She added: “In a way, it was wonderful to have my father as long as we had him. But I became CEO a little bit later, so in some ways, I had a lot of life experience which I think gave me more wisdom as a leader. But it would have been nice to have started a little bit earlier…”

Since stepping down from the family business, she is keeping busy working on several boards and teaching students at the Carlson School of Management that business can be a force for good.

So far, it really doesn’t seem like she’s retired.

“It’s the next chapter,” she said. “It’s a renewal, really.”

Another thing that Carlson Nelson is very proud of is that she’s been married for 51 years. Now that she’s “retired”, she’s sharing an office with her husband. However, she’s not sure how that’s going to work out.

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