Marilyn Carlson Nelson Talks About Entrepreneurial Integrity … and More

Marilyn Carlson Nelson, named by Forbes magazine as “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” and LeeAnn Rasachak, CEO of WomenVenture, at entrepreneurial conference. Carlson’s previous role as chair of the National Women’s Business Council — which advised the President and Congress on issues supportive of women business owners — was pivotal to the creation of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Women’s Business Centers, including WomenVenture, which has impacted thousands of women-led and owned businesses in Minnesota.

March 14, 2023 — The Minnesota Entrepreneur Network hosted a day-long “Innovation Unleashed” program at Saint Thomas bringing together statewide organizations that support entrepreneurs.

The Lifter Award was presented to Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former chair and CEO of Carlson, who delivered a keynote address. She also held a private conversation with women entrepreneurs.

“How We Lead Matters” is the title of a book she published in 2008, as she was stepping away from managing the Minnesota-based global group of companies in the hotel, restaurant, travel, cruise, and marketing services.

In the book, she shares vignettes from her life, which included being chastised by her father for wanting to quit the unruly Sunday school class she was in instead of doing something to fix it; leading the Super Bowl committee after she helped Minnesota win hosting rights in 1992; and being in charge of an international travel and hotel company during the challenges that came from September 11, 2001.

She writes about flying in an F-16 jet as part of a grand ceremony in Las Vegas when her father handed the business to her in 1998. Carlson Nelson was determined to not be one of the 80 percent who gets sick from the rolls and loops and speed. She felt she needed to experience the “thrill” as a rare female CEO, but was nervous about being on camera potentially needing the plastic bag tucked into her flight suit.

She did not get sick, and wrote of the experience: “For obvious reasons, I welcome gender parity. But there’s a less obvious reason: There’s just too much pressure when you’re ‘one of a handful.’ It’s almost enough to make you sick.”

Among the opening quotes for each vignette is this one:

Everyone has his own Atlantic to fly. Whatever you want very much to do, against the opposition of tradition, neighborhood opinion and so-called “common sense” — that is an Atlantic.

Amelia Earhart, U.S. aviator

Maintaining Trust

In her keynote address at the event, Carlson Nelson talked about how innovation is the lifeblood of our economy, responsible capitalism is essential to democracy, and business can be the greatest power for good when it is well led.

She said she believes entrepreneurship is “a whole other generation of innovation from the ones that I grew up with. I have come to believe that innovation is really the lifeblood of our economy. Responsible capitalism is essential to democracy. And my emphasis is on responsible. I’m a passionate believer that business is powerful when it is well led. It is the greatest power for good.”

Carlson Nelson chose “How We Lead Matters” as the title for her book because: “I can’t emphasize enough, we can learn all the wonderful things an event like this teaches us — the coaching, the case studies, the networking, how to start a business, how to raise capital, how to develop a business model and the business plan, what to do about strategies and tactics. [Let’s also] talk about how you are leading your organization and how you are holding yourself to the highest possible standard.”

Carlson Nelson shared the family business credo that was passed to her from her father, then from her to her children and grandchildren. “It is placed on the wall of our corporate headquarters. I’ve taught it to everything from Girl Scouts to volunteers for different organizations that I’ve led. ‘Whatever you do, do with integrity. Wherever you go, go as a leader. Whoever you serve, serve with care. Whenever you dream, dream with your all, and never, ever give up.'”


Carlson Nelson said business-oriented meetings need to talk about integrity. “The fact is that [the world has] a crisis of trust. I’ve been at events, in meetings, at parties, where people say, ‘I don’t trust anybody anymore.’

She cited Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist affiliated with Stanford and author of “Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity,” who talked about trust as the lubricant of society.

“We trust that when we drove here, people will stay on the right side of the road,” Carlson Nelson explained. “We trust at lunch that the food is going to be safe. When trust breaks down, our democracy breaks. Customers have to trust your product or your service. We’re hearing about apps where our biases are put right into the application. We have to be careful that we don’t pass on some naive, improper lack of truth. We have to think about the veracity of what we’re building. We have to be honest with our employees. We have to create communities of respect. We have to compensate fairly. And we have to think of [everyone] as human beings.”

She added, “In a time when we have more mental illness, more stress identified throughout the community, we have to take the time to listen — in an environment that is more supportive and concerned about resilience than we were before.”

“If you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s built on competence, communication, character. Take the time to lift your people, to lift your family, to lift your community, and to be in power. We need your innovation. We need your entrepreneurship. We need you to be leaders and lifters. It takes courage. It takes patience. And it takes holding yourself accountable.”

— Marilyn Carlson Nelson

One Journey Can Be Enough

Carlson Nelson also shared at the event, and in her book, the story about losing her daughter Juliet in a car accident weeks after she had moved to Smith College for freshman year. “It was the darkest hour we could ever have imagined. [All those things we had been preparing her for was for someday], when she grew up. Now all of a sudden, she had no more time. The only way we could deal with this loss was to cherish every day, to cherish the time we had, to try to use the time we had to do to make a difference, to have an impact on the world. By doing that, it would be our way of somehow filling the time that she never had.”

She and her husband, Dr. Glen Nelson, decided to ask each other at the end of each day if they had lived up to the promise of each day. “Think about an artist who does a painting and then one day is finished, steps back, and says ‘I’ll sign my name on that page.’ At the end of the day, [if that painting is not done and] we haven’t lived up to our agreement to be the kind of leader we want to be, we [aspire] to do better the next day … and live up to our promise to Juliet, that we will cherish every day and try to make a difference every day, and cherish each other.”

In her book, Carlson Nelson ends with quotes from the speech her daughter gave at her high school graduation a few months before she died.

“Do you ever feel that you are constantly getting ready for something? … Everything, everywhere, points toward some one moment or place out there. … If each day we would give a friend a hug or not be so quick to judge someone we don’t know, and forgive a little bit easier. …

Life is always fragile. What if something happened to you today? What would trouble you the most? … An abrupt ending? Unfinished studies? Unplayed games? Unperformed dramas? I am willing to bet it would be unsaid words, incomplete relationships, unfulfilled promises. …

Each one of us is only given one journey. But if we enjoy it to the fullest … every minute of it, one journey is enough.”

— Juliet Evans Nelson, 1983