Scholars at Dougherty Family College in Minneapolis were inspired recently when philanthropist Marilyn Carlson Nelson spoke to them about her career journey, leadership and courage.
“You have the courage to step out of your comfort zone,” she said. “The courage to take a very big step and go to college. You did this despite the fact that maybe no one in your family went to college.”
Carlson Nelson is the former CEO of Carlson, which was founded by her father, Curt Carlson, in the 1930s. The Minnetonka-based company once owned Radisson Hotels, Country Inns & Suites, restaurant chain TGI Fridays and travel management companies, among other entities. The family still owns the equity firm Carlson Private Capital Partners.
At her DFC talk, Carlson Nelson shared insights about her time as a leader in an industry dominated by men.
“When I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, I only saw men in leadership roles,” she said. She knew that in order to compete in business, she needed to attend college and major in economics. “Women didn't study economics in those days, but the men did,” she said.
"Once I graduated, I was all excited … to go out and find a job. I was turned down everywhere I applied,” she said. Then one CEO took a chance on her as a junior analyst. One rule he had for her, she said, was to sign her reports with her initials: M.C. Nelson. She said he told her that men would not want to accept advice from a woman.
“I knew in my heart it was not right, certainly not for me, but not for other women, not for the companies in general,” she said. “They weren’t drawing from the whole talent pool. Talent comes in every color, gender and nationality. Right then and there I found my purpose. I wanted to spend the rest of my life fighting for positive change, fighting for equity and fighting for inclusion.”
DFC scholar Anna Lafrenierre was moved by Carlson Nelson’s words.
“I think what impacted me is her ability to speak about the realness and to share her story that could be hard to share,” Lafrenierre said. “It was hard being a woman in a majority male-dominated space and she persevered through all of it.”
Carlson Nelson’s words impacted more than just DFC students. St. Thomas President Rob Vischer and DFC benefactor Mike Dougherty were in attendance, as were staff and faculty.
“(Marilyn) is a trailblazer. Our phenomenal scholars are trailblazers,” Dougherty Family College Dean Buffy Smith said.
“It was good to witness Mrs. Carlson Nelson engage with and show a human-to-human love and connection with our scholars.”
The Carlson Family Foundation makes about $12.5 million in grants annually, with most focusing on education and uplifting children, according to its foundation website.
Carlson Nelson kicked off the new Dougherty Family College Speaker Series. Former Arizona Cardinals player and Minneapolis native, Larry Fitzgerald Jr., is scheduled to speak to scholars in October.