Marilyn Carlson Nelson

Chairman, Carlson
Author, How We Lead Matters

One of the world’s most respected corporate leaders explains why how we lead matters — now more than ever before.

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Marilyn Carlson Nelson is chairman and former CEO of Carlson, one of the largest privately held travel and hospitality companies in the world which includes such brands as Radisson Blu and Radisson Hotels, Country Inns & Suites, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants.

Under Ms. Nelson’s leadership, often referred to as the firm’s “Golden Decade,” systemwide sales nearly doubled to $40 billion and the corporate culture was transformed into a true meritocracy where today 49% of upper management positions are held by women.

She has been named one of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News & World Report and Forbes magazine has regularly selected her as one of "The World's 100 Most Powerful Women." In 2007, Ethisphere Magazine named her one of the "100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics."

As a global business leader, human rights activist, wife, mother and grandmother, Ms. Nelson speaks on the topic of leadership from the board table to the kitchen table. She is the author of How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership, an inspiring collection of wisdom about how to build a meaningful legacy one day at a time.

She is an outspoken advocate in the fight against human trafficking. Under her leadership, Carlson was the first major North American travel company to take a stand against the sexual exploitation of children in the tourism industry. Ms. Nelson also instructs MBA students in corporate responsibility at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

Ms. Nelson co-chaired the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2004 and has held a number of other high-level positions at the WEF and other industry councils. She has received prestigious awards from the governments of France, Sweden, Finland and Norway. She serves on the boards of the UN Global Compact, Mayo Clinic, The Committee Encouraging Philanthropy and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Ms. Nelson also served as chair of the National Women’s Business Council, a bi-partisan advisory council to the President and Congress on women’s entrepreneurship (2002/2005) and chaired the U.S. Travel and Tourism Board (2008-2010).


  • Chairman & former CEO, Carlson
  • Author, How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership
  • Accolades
    • One of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women, Forbes magazine
    • One of America's Best Leaders, U.S. News & World Report
    • One of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics, Ethisphere Magazine
    • Business Leader Award, United Nations & End Human Trafficking Now!
  • World Economic Forum (WEF)
    • Co-chair, World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland (2004)
    • Member of the WEF's International Business Council
    • Co-founder and advisory board member, Women Leaders Program, WEF
  • Boards
    • Mayo Clinic (retired member)
    • UN Global Compact
    • ExxonMobil Corporation (former member)
    • The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
    • Harvard Women Leaders Board
    • The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy
    • The Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota
  • Chair by presidential appointment, National Women's Business Council, advising the U.S. President and Congress (2002-2005)
  • Millennium Chair, Travel Industry Association of America
  • Chair, U. S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board (2008-2010)
  • Former Member, World Travel and Tourism Council and the Business Roundtable
  • Graduated with honours from Smith College with a degree in International Economics and a minor in Theater. - Attended the Sorbonne in Paris and the Institute Des Hautes Etudes Economiques Politiques in Geneva, Switzerland, where she studied political science and international economics.


  • Inductee, French Légion d'Honneur, established by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognise exemplary leadership and service to humanity
  • Royal Order of the North Star, First Class, from the King of Sweden
  • Order of the White Rose, Officer First Class, from the President of Finland
  • Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit

World Economic Forum & Other Appointments
Marilyn Carlson Nelson is on the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council and in 2004 co-chaired the Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. She also serves on the steering committee of the Aviation, Travel & Tourism Governors of the World Economic Forum, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum, and is co-founder and advisory board member of the WEF's Women Leaders Program.

Public Service
Marilyn has always been devoted to community programs and has served as President of the United Way of Minneapolis, Board Member of United Way of America, Chair of New Sweden '88, and leader of the Governor's Task Force to bring the 1992 Super Bowl to Minnesota. Supporting the family’s strong Swedish heritage, Marilyn chaired the nine-month long "Scandinavia Today" celebration in the U.S.


How We Lead Matters

Reflections on a Life of Leadership

Marilyn Carlson Nelson

From one of “The World's 100 Most Powerful Women” (Forbes)-an inspiring collection of stories, insights, and profound life lessons…

Named one of “America's Best Leaders” by U.S. News & Report, Marilyn Carlson Nelson has achieved global recognition for the Carlson brands of hotels, restaurants, cruise, travel, and marketing services.

But that's only part of the story.

As a daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother, Marilyn has always put people first. When her grandson asked a simple question about her life, she decided to write it all down-her fondest memories and deepest insights in How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership. This thoughtful book offers a surprisingly personal glimpse into a multi-faceted woman who happens to be one of the most successful CEOs in the world. She describes the thrill of flying in an F16 over Death Valley (without getting sick), and throwing a barbeque for the KGB (who preferred vodka to the traditional beer). She shares the difficulty of making choices and sacrifices to run her family's business, and the heartbreak of losing a child.

Her insights are sprinkled with the timeless words of Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and others, as she talks about what it's like to be a woman in today's business world, while reflecting on an engaging array of subjects-from equal rights to corporate wrongs to motherhood. Most compelling of all, she reveals how a meaningful legacy is built one day at a time.

McGraw-Hill Professional (1 Sep 2008)


A CEO Leaves Her


Marilyn tailors each presentation to the needs of her audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest her range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

Corporate Leadership


Centennial Awards Gala


A premier manufacturing association:
Riveting! Hypnotic! Engaging! Powerful! There is not one word that can be used to describe the power of the presentation you delivered on Thursday afternoon! The best words of all are, "Spoken from the heart, with love."

A family-owned worldwide manufacturer of confectionery, pet food and other food products:
It went extremely well, Marilyn spoke casually and related to [our company] on a personal basis about the complexities of running a family owned international business. She took an active role in all parts of the event. She's a terrific storyteller and ultimately she was the best choice for our conference.

A leadership development and training corporation:
Everyone involved loved working with Marilyn and they seemed equally pleased with the experience. The customer feedback has been very positive. The type of message just was perfect for the "times". The story telling feel to this broadcast was just what was needed. It is always good when the first speaker of any series was so positively received and bodes well for the remainder of the series.

A major association leadership conference:
Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s talk with our group yesterday was just terrific. It was just a perfect start to our conference and she just did a wonderful, wonderful job. So thank you for all your help in making these arrangements.


— Financial Times