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She worked for several years at another company when she was fresh out of college, and then opened a bank with her sister. She then, however, returned to the family business, and worked hard to achieve high positions within the company. She was appointed the Director of community relations in 1968, and held a host of other positions before becoming the Chief Operating Officer of Carlson Companies in 1997. A year later she took over the position of president, and Chief Executive Officer, of the company. Considered an extremely powerful woman in the travel industry, she has been named as such by various magazines and newspapers, and given awards that reflect her achievements in business. But she has also always remained socially conscious.
Although she has been involved in various other humanitarian projects throughout the years, she won the Trafficking in Persons Hero Award in 2004 because of the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, developed by ECPAT, which she signed on behalf of her company. In doing so, she bound the company to follow those guidelines, which are specifically tailored to fighting and preventing human trafficking. That code of conduct requires that employees be given training with regard to perpetrators of child sex tourism, that people traveling with Carlson be made aware of the penalties of such conduct, and that the company write a policy which makes it clear that their company stands against exploitative tourism. Ms. Nelson won a Trafficking in Persons Hero Award in 2004 for her work with Carlson Companies in combatting human trafficking. Since 2004, the Wyndham Worldwide Corporation, the Real Hospitality Group, and Hilton Worldwide have gone on to sign the same code of conduct. In 2005, Carlson Companies also introduced a curriculum for more intensive employee training.
She still stands for this issue, and has spoken and given interviews about the connections between trafficking and the travel industry. She still sits on the board of Carlson Companies, and is a co-CEO. The Company still makes incredible efforts to fight human trafficking, from putting the national hotline number on the back of tickets to partnering with major ant-trafficking NGOs such as Polaris Project or ECPAT. They also helped to finance a film which showed on CNN, titled “Not My Life,” which addressed human trafficking, and were sponsors of Nicholas Kristof’s documentary companion to his book Half the Sky. Carlson was also a major player in the formation of gBCAT, the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking. In 2013, in fact, Carlson Companies was given the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. In 2010, Marilyn Carlson Nelson was also given a Business Leader’s Award to Fight Human Trafficking by UNGIFT.