Leading with a Cause

Marilyn Carlson Nelson ’61 says businesses always have the responsibility to 'do the right thing’

by John MacMillan

Businesses often get a bad rap for their corporate greed or questionable practices, but according to one of the industry’s most influential leaders, they can also be forces for great social change.
In an April 17 speech titled “How We Lead Matters,” Marilyn Carlson Nelson ’61, former CEO and current chair of the board of the Carlson company, told students that throughout history CEOs, corporate executives, and other business leaders have often set the course for significant progress in human rights by taking what she called the “courageous” step to simply do the right thing.Marilyn Carlson Nelson

“I have always believed that business—in the right hands, operating in the right culture—can be one of the world’s most powerful forces for good,” Nelson said. “In the end, making the right choices where business and human rights intersect often comes down to courage and leadership.”

To that end, as head of one of the largest and most successful hospitality and travel businesses in the world, Nelson is using her, and her company’s, status to bring attention to, as she called it, one of the darkest human rights issues in the world today: human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.

Calling herself a “twenty-first century abolitionist,” Nelson is working with travel industry leaders and government officials to enact laws and better business practices that will protect children.

The problem of human trafficking, she said, is insidious and, more often than not, goes unnoticed. “People do not understand that this illicit activity could actually touch your own family,” Nelson said. “Awareness and education is the first step.”

She said the Carlson company was first approached to join the fight against human trafficking in 1999 by Queen Silvia of Sweden, who in her travels had seen how poor and homeless children around the world were vulnerable to all forms of exploitation. The queen asked Carlson to join her as founders of The World Childhood Foundation, which would provide services and shelter to at-risk children. Later, Nelson partnered with Ambassador John Miller at the US State Department in charge of the Office of Trafficking in Persons. “He told me that many children are used in what is called ‘sex tourism’ and that crime often plays out in hotels in our country and across the globe,” she said.

The Carlson company eventually became the first US-based travel company to sign the travel industry’s international Code of Conduct, which offers guidance and training to hotel and service employees in how to spot suspicious behavior and report it.

Though the cause was commendable, Nelson said she didn’t have an easy time convincing her company to take it on. The legal team was concerned about liability, and the public relations group was worried that the issue would tarnish the Carlson brand. “[They] said, ‘But we’re in the happiness business. We can’t be associated with a dark issue like this.’”

Nelson, though, knew that this was her company’s chance to do the right thing. “To not act would be morally reprehensible,” she said.

For seven years, the company was the only US hotel company to sign the Code of Conduct. Within the past year, though, the Hilton and Wyndham chains have signed the code.

On a local level in Minnesota, where Carlson is based, the company has sponsored a number of initiatives to combat the exploitation of children and protect young girls, who are often the targets of trafficking. “We’re determined to turn our traditionally welcoming ‘Minnesota is Nice’ state into a hostile and punishing place for those who would prey on our children,” Nelson said.

She challenged the students in the audience to do their part to ensure that communities are safe places for all children. “I have lived nearly my entire life in a community I cherish and a country I love. I am deeply appreciative of the quality of life we all enjoy,” she said. “But quality of life and a society that values human dignity are not inherited. They must be renewed by each generation or they will gradually slip away.”

John MacMillan is director of alumnae communications.